She's about to play the Mother Superior for the 10th time. In nine previous local productions of Nunsense and two of its sequels — those wacky musicals about neurotic Catholic penguins — Jean Hardie has done the vaudeville bump and grind, the “Free Willy” routine, the death-defying splits, and the long, slow burns that Sister Mary Regina does whenever the Little Sisters of Hoboken misbehave (and they always misbehave), all with her glowering countenance framed beneath a wimple.
Hardie first did this show at the Civic back in 1990, back when she was 43, and … well, the acrobatics take a toll. As Hardie puts it, “If you’re asking whether we will be doing all the physical stuff we have done in the past, the answer is: ‘Are you crazy?’ But we’re doing as much as is humanly possible. And when I say ‘we,’ I really mean ‘me’!” Those physical demands can make Hardie a little cranky — which, when you’re playing a demanding Mother Superior, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad thing. “We’re both very crabby,” Hardie says. “I’m crabbier now than I was when I started playing her 20 years ago — but I’m still not as crabby as she is. Let’s just say that, through playing the Mother Superior, I can channel my own crabbiness.”
THE PLAK TOW AND THE CANE
She’s not so crabby that she doesn’t have good memories. She frames one particular memory from the show with “that Star Trek episode when Spock has to go back to his home planet for a mating ritual [“Amok Time”],” she explains. “His hormones take over, and the old gal on Vulcan looks at him and says, ‘He is beyond reaching now. He is in the plak tow [Vulcan for “blood fever”].’ “Well,” says Hardie, “sometime around the end of the first run of Nunsense [in 1990], I was coming out of ‘Holier Than Thou’ [the show’s next-to-last number], and there was this moment where I totally didn’t know what was going on — but in a good way. It felt a little transcendent — this was beyond just, ‘Wow, that felt good tonight.’ And I thought, ‘My gosh, I was just in the plak tow.’ I carry that moment around with me whenever I get to the end of the show.”
Then there’s Hardie’s absolute favorite moment from two Nunsensical decades. “On opening night of the very first run of Nunsense, during the last number of the first act, I did this little jump and pulled a muscle in my calf — I swear I could hear a ‘ping.’ I really couldn’t put any weight on it at all, and I hobbled through the rest of the number in a blur,” she recalls. “During intermission, we iced it and wrapped it and someone found me a cane. I really don’t remember who, but I owe this person a debt of thanks, because from that moment on, the cane became an integral part of Mother Superior as I play her.
“During the second act, there’s a scene in which Mother Superior is very angry at the other sisters and orders them to follow her offstage — presumably to do some kind of penance. At that precise moment, I remember thinking, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ I fixed them with a serious stare and said, ‘Walk this way.’ Then I turned and limped off thinking, ‘If they don’t pick up on this, I’ll kill them!’ “They did: They limped off after me. And the audience laughed – a lot – giving me a reason to whip around and almost catch them at it. [The other nuns] played it perfectly. We kept it in, and it always gets a wonderful laugh, but there was something really cosmic — almost magical — about that first time.”
THE BALLERINA, THE COUNTRY STAR AND THE SACRILEGIOUS CHEF
Hardie may be Spokane’s No. 1 Fake Nun, but she’s not the entire show. In fact, director Troy Nickerson — himself a longtime veteran of the show — has attracted an extremely experienced cast. Kathie Doyle-Lipe, for example, has played four of the five roles in Nunsense. (All but Sister Mary Amnesia. She’ll play the second-in-command, Sister Mary Hubert, in this production.) Returning as Amnesia — who gets hit on the head by a crucifix — is Patricia Brady, returning to the role she first played alongside Hardie 21 years ago. Abbey Crawford, who’s also Nunsense-experienced, is playing Sister Robert Anne, the streetwise one. The only Nunsense newbie is Jillian Wylie, whose dancing skills earned her the role of Sister Mary Leo, the one who dreams of being the world’s first ballerina nun.
Hardie traces the show’s appeal to adults who did time as Catholic school kids and who enjoy that kind of irreverence. “The Catholics who attend this show are those who had their issues with nuns,” she says. “I believe they enjoy seeing [nuns] brought down — not necessarily brought down, because we still win — but being human and having foibles.
“And the ones who love Nunsense the most,” she adds, “are the nuns and the priests.”
Nunsense • Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, from Feb. 18-March 6 • $28; $26, seniors; $20, students; $10, student rush • Spokane Civic Theatre • 1020 N. Howard St. • spokanecivictheatre.com • 325- 2507 or (800) 325-SEAT