Playwright Brian Mullin was selected from over 800 applicants to join the 503Five Writer-in-Residence scheme where We Wait in Joyful Hope was commissioned. His play was inspired by the story of his own aunt, a Franciscan nun who, inspired by the reforms initiated by Pope John XXIII, took over a tenement building in Hell’s Kitchen and created New York City’s first shelter for homeless women. The shelter still exists today.

Belligerent and tenacious, Bernie has been running Elizabeth House, a women’s centre in a New Jersey slum, for thirty years, battling the police, chauvinist priests, and even gang leaders for the sake of her community. Now in her 70s and suffering from diabetes and bad kidneys, Bernie faces her biggest challenge.

Sister Bernie D’Amato (Maggie McCarthy) is not your picture book nun. Dressed in a red Che Guevara t-shirt and faded jeans, she is chewing on a Snickers bar, sipping from Coke can whilst dealing with another “cretin” on the phone and playing Scrabble with 16-year old Felicia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), a smart girl with aspirations of becoming a singer. When former nun Joanne (Deidra Morris) appears, Bernie is not amused. Joanne deserted the centre years ago to get married. Now that her husband has died and her children are all grown up, she is looking for new tasks and soon turns into an unwelcome carer for Bernie who has far more important things on her mind than her failing health: Property developers are buying up the neighbourhood and Father Grady (James Tucker) of the local parish is in cahoots with them.

The funny and intelligent play touches on some very important issues: Gentrification, police brutality and the male-dominated hierarchy of the Catholic Church as well as the meaning of friendship and forgiveness. Yet the first half of Lisa Cagnacci’s production seemed too long and somewhat repetitive, dragging on a bit. The acting was flawless. Sister Bernie is a very colourful character and a force to be reckoned with, and Maggie McCarthy inhabits the character. Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Deidra Morris give touching performances as the vibrant and streetwise Felicia and the soft-spoken, somewhat naive Joanne. James Tucker is very good as Grady, a trendy priest riding a Harley Davidson. Katherine Heath’s design includes a simple kitchenette and a small living room cluttered with cereal boxes, candy wrappers, and soda cans as well as stacks of papers and books – clearly Sister Bernie’s home.

A very entertaining and moving production.

Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Martin Sharpe

We Live in Joyful Hope is playing at Theatre 503 until 11th June