Review: "The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows" Asks If the Kids Will Be Alright

The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows

Written by Gina Femia

Directed by Blayze Teicher

Presented by Spicy Witch Productions at The Flea Theater

20 Thomas St., Manhattan, NYC

May 17-June 1, 2019

Shava Clarke, Alia Guidry, Renita Lewis, and Pearl Shin. Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks

In each of its seasons, Spicy Witch Productions pairs contemporary and classical plays in repertory in order to explore gender and identity. The themes of previous seasons have included gender presentation, gendered violence, and the construct of relationships as a form of ownership. This season, Spicy Witch’s seventh, focuses on rebellion and revolution and puts a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure into thought-provoking conversation with new play The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows. In addition, putting its money where its theme is, Spicy Witch will donate a portion of sales of merchandise, available in the lobby, to Planned Parenthood. We discuss each production in a separate review: The Virtuous Fall here and Measure for Measure at this link, with reference to Virtuous Fall.

Ashil Lee and Sarah Rosengarten. Photo credit: Phoebe Brooks

Playwright Gina Femia’s memorably monikered new play The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows takes place in the titular all-girls Catholic high school in East New York, Brooklyn, in 2002, with period-appropriate music, bulky Discmans, and references to cell phone minutes helping to establish the atmosphere of the early millennium. Our Lady of Sorrows, we learn, occupies a building that was once a brothel, bringing to mind the order in Measure for Measure to pull down all bawdy houses. The play opens with Sister Ignatius (Mia Canter) delivering a welcome-back-to-school speech that paints her as earnest and well-meaning if anodyne. She is interrupted by student Minnie Green (Renita Lewis), whose senior thesis, a project that does not have the full support of all of the nuns at the school, is M4M2, a sequel to Measure for Measure set in hell. Minnie’s cast comes to include a diverse group of students, not all of them at first there willingly: Minnie’s sister, Dove (Shavana Clarke); J-Lo fan and trivia repository Jenny (Sarah Rosengarten); lesbian Imogene (Alia Guidry); bisexual Maxx (Ashil Lee), who is suffering some deep existential angst; and freshman Mathilda (Pearl Shin), straight- arrow naïf and daughter of a Shakespeare scholar. During the process of bringing Minnie’s vision to fruition, we also watch this group of young women trying to figure out, often amidst misinformation, themselves—including, in a couple of cases, their romantic lives—and the facts and ethics of the world around them. Debates over herpes and periods (human and otherwise) and under what circumstances virginity can be considered lost are, in the end, little different from the process of trying to define larger truths and moral stances. Sister Ignatius refers to “the great ethical dilemma presented to Isabella” in Measure for Measure, and she, in her request that Minnie add a particular scene to her play, creates for these students their own great ethical choice. Sister Ignatius adheres to the line of thinking that rules and roles are there for a reason and shouldn’t be challenged. The open question is whether these young women will themselves acquiesce or resist. 

Alia Guidry and Mia Canter. Photo Credit: Phoebe Brooks

By virtue of Minnie’s project, The Virtuous Fall includes some amusing metatheatrical moments, such as Minnie arguing that plays are supposed to come alive through performance, Imogene asserting that writing a play can’t be hard since it’s just people speaking in sequence, and Minnie’s fervently revising her script after seeing the first rehearsal. It is also full of funny, realistic chatter among the young women. A profusion of artificial white flowers dot the walls, suggesting the broader thematic concerns of the play in their association with female sexuality and purity, female saints (represented in stained glass on the side walls of the stage) and novenas, and even the aspirational stars of an inspirational plaque quoted by Sister Ignatius. Within this milieu, Dove worries that her and Minnie’s father, who died in 9/11, might be in hell, a thread that the play brings together organically with the M4M2 narrative line. In a parallel, Sister Ignatius informs Imogene that she can’t help who she is, but she can help what she does. As in this case, The Virtuous Fall is admirable in having likeable characters take unlikeable positions, as it is for presenting the sexual experience of some of the young women not as a plot point but as a given.

Sister Ignatius’s likeability is assured by Canter, and she is extremely funny as the rest of the school’s teachers, as well as an outside speaker on menstruation; her playing all of school’s authority figures could be seen as a subtle critical comment on orthodoxy. The entire cast supplies skillful, bracingly naturalistic performances; and Shin and Lewis are particularly impressive. Shin brings depth and some great line deliveries to her role, and scenes such as Shin’s Matilda ministering to Lee’s injured Maxx and Lewis’s Minnie having a painful conversation with Clarke’s Dove around the topic of the school’s father-daughter dance are particularly affecting. The production also manages to make moments like one character’s first use of a tampon—an initiation into a different kind of mystery than those of the Church—play as joyful celebration. One teacher, Sister Rose, inadvertently pays Anne Boleyn a compliment while condemning the lust that she says led Henry VIII to split England from the Catholic Church: an entire system, she notes, was destroyed over one woman. The Virtuous Fall of the Girls from Our Lady of Sorrows proposes that we could use more rather than fewer such unruly women.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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