Long before “SNL,” “Caddyshack” or “Ghostbusters,” Bill Murray began his career portraying St. Joseph in a nativity scene in his childhood home’s basement—so says Nancy Murray, his sister and a Dominican Sister of Adrian, Michigan. The Wilmette, Illinois, Murray children—which include another famed actor, Brian Doyle-Murray—had a theatrical upbringing: They sang, acted and choreographed constantly because of patriarch Edward Murray.
CHARACTER VARIETY: Nancy Murray will take on Catherine of Siena and the numerous folks who influenced her life for one night only at UNCW. Courtesy photo
“My father liked classical music and showtunes,” Nancy says. “We used to do a lot of ‘Carousel,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘Sound of Music,’ ‘Music Man,’ ‘West Side Story.’”
The early exposure influenced both siblings. Decades later, while her brother cracks jokes on the big screen, Nancy has become a jet-setting actress who performs hundreds of one-woman shows per year, including an upcoming performance in Wilmington on March 15. “Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times” tells the story of the titular woman’s life.
Catherine was a prominent historical figure and Catholic saint born in the 14th century. She was a theologian, philosopher and mystic who held influence over the pope himself. She was born in the Italian city of Siena, had her first vision of Christ at the age of 6, and dedicated herself to a religious order of St. Dominic at the age of 16. Murray began to relate to Catherine of Siena because she, too, came from a big Catholic family—although Murray only has 8 siblings, while the 14th-century saint had 23.
Murray starts every show entering from behind the audience. She proceeds to a stage, each side set with a table, chair, glass of water, and assortment of flowers. One side is simple, meant to emulate the poor beginnings of Catherine’s life; the other is set with brocade or upholstery to signify the grandeur and glory of the papal seat in Avignon, where Catherine went to persuade Pope Gregory XI to return to Italy. The show begins with Catherine’s childhood and moves through her adolescence and womanhood, with Murray speaking both as Catherine and a variety of characters who appear in her life. Murray isn’t afraid to involve her spectators.
“The audience becomes a part of the program,” she elaborates. “They become my family, my patients, the members of the women’s group [Catherine] entered.”
Like Catherine of Siena, Murray was young (only a year out of high school) when she joined the Adrian Dominican sisters. As Dominicans, the sisters are part of an “order of preachers” and have a mission to “seek truth, make peace, and reverence life.” The first thing Murray did as part of the order was go to college. She majored in drama at Barry University in Miami and later completed a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University. Over the course of her career, she has taught theatre and worked with inner-city parishes in Chicago, but now she spends most of her time touring internationally. For Murray, performance is a form of preaching—an extension of her order’s purpose.
Her show began in 2000, after the death of Sr. Kathy Harkins, another Dominican sister and Murray’s drama teacher. Harkins had committed to performing a show in October, but passed away in April. Murray was asked to step in.
“I knew I couldn’t do what she did,” Murray says. “She had so many props, tape recorders, slides from Europe . . . I couldn’t do all that. So I wrote a new script.”
Harkins had written a show from the perspective of Catherine of Siena’s best friend; Murray chose to do it as Catherine herself. She also cut the list of props to a few pieces of furniture and removed the technology.
Fifteen years, 17 countries and 40 states later, Murray has performed hundreds of shows and never written down Catherine’s script. “It’s constantly evolving,” she explains. She has performed in gymnasiums and cafeterias, for parishes, nursing homes, and even huge events like World Youth Day. This week she will take over UNCW’s Lumina Theater as a guest of the UNCW Catholic Campus Ministry for their annual Alan J. Dash Lecture.
“[Performing] is a way of reflecting on life,” Murray says. “[Catherine is] a character from the 14th century I’m able to make relevant today. No matter how modern and sophisticated we can become, there’s still some basic similarities of growing up and human nature. People loved her and hated her, wanted to have her killed, wanted to be with her, were inspired by her, were motivated or threatened [by her]. She had that kind of power.”