In Scene 2, we have the contrast of the older, stern Sr. Aloysius and the younger, enthusiastic Sr. James. It’s easy to like Sr. James and to frown upon Sr. Aloysius, who seems to be vetoing anything happy. But let’s look again.
Sr. Aloysius is the principal of the school and has worked there for many years. Sr. James is a new teacher. We can fairly say, I think, that as a new teacher, she undoubtedly has things to learn. Sr. Aloysius is taking the time, in this scene, to mentor her. Her approach may seem a bit severe at times, but let’s assume that underneath the gruffness is a sincere desire to help Sr. James be a better teacher, so that the children may be better served.
If you disagree with Sr. Aloysius, what you are disagreeing with is what it means “to be a better teacher”, or “what will benefit the children”. Those are things about which reasonable people can disagree. But you need to understand how Sr. Aloysius defines these things and, more importantly, why. What in her background has led her to believe these things? Has she tried other ways and seen them fail?
What are the things that matter to Sr. Aloysius? Let’s look at some of her lines:
“Much can be accomplished in sixty minutes.”
“Always the easy way out these days. What does that teach? An easy choice today can have its consequence tomorrow.”
“Penmanship is dying all across the country.”
“You favor History and risk swaying the children to value it over their other subjects. I think this is a mistake.”
“I do not say this to aggrandize myself, but to illustrate the importance of paying attention.”
“What good’s a gift if it’s left in the box?”
“The best teachers do not perform, they cause the students to perform.”
“Good teachers are never content.”
“It is a society which requires constant educational, spiritual, and human vigilance.”
“God gave you a brain and a heart. The heart is warm, but your wits must be cold.”
“They’re children. They can talk to each other. It’s more important they have a fierce moral guardian. You stand at the door, Sister. You are the gatekeeper. If you are vigilant, they will not need to be.”
“I’m sorry I’m not more forthright, but I must be careful not to create something by saying it.”
Take these lines out of the dialogue and forget that Sr. Aloysius is the one saying them. These are all lines that you can probably either agree with or else understand the thinking behind them. You may think that an adult ought to be more than a fierce moral guardian to a child, but you can probably get on board with Sr. Aloysius’ view that adults should protect children from anything immoral.
Despite all of the things Sr. Aloysius says that we don’t care for, the play is sprinkled with lines that we can agree with, that show her to be a bit more human than we thought when we first read the play.
The interesting question about Sr. Aloysius is that she is absolutely well-meaning and in some ways absolutely right. Yet she takes it to an edge that we find unpalatable – she is an extremist in what she believes. Why? How has she arrived at this point? What in her history has brought her to such a rigid, black and white position?
Well, that’s the journey you go on in rehearsal. Just remember that she, too, has a heart, and that her heart is warm as well. She knows William London is on a bad path and that she can’t do much to alter it, and it pains her. She worries that someone will hit Donald Muller because he is black, and that Linda Conte will have sex before she turns 14. And while she asks Sr. James to help Sr. Veronica because the school can’t afford to lose a teacher, I suspect that she is also worried about Sr. Veronica’s physical well-being as well as her happiness. Who wants to be shunted away to the old nun’s home?