For the better part of a decade, Sister Nancy Murray has been performing onstage throughout the world in a one-woman play that tells the story of St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century Italian teenager who was instrumental in restoring the papacy to Rome and who remains, more than half a millennium after her death, one of her country's most prolific authors.
And yet, it's hardly a role as a saint that piques people's curiosity most about Sister Nancy, at least at first blush. Saints are one thing, but what people really want to hear about is her brother Bill — Bill Murray, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus, Oscar-nominated actor, the guy who whispered something into Scarlett Johansson's ear in the movie "Lost in Translation" that people are still trying to figure out.
Sister Nancy, speaking over the phone from her order's headquarters in southern Michigan, offers an easy laugh and a welcoming conversational style. Thankfully, she's happy to talk about both her families — the raucous Murray clan of suburban Chicago, where she was the third of nine children and oldest girl, and the Dominican order she entered in 1966, for which she performs her play, "St. Catherine of Siena: A Woman of Our Times," as a ministry. She'll be in Baltimore this weekend, for two shows at Notre Dame of Maryland University's LeClerc Hall.
As St. Catherine, Sister Nancy gets to use the training she received studying theater at Barry University in Miami and Loyola University Chicago (where she also earned a master's degree in pastoral counseling).
At 64, she's almost twice the age St. Catherine was when she died in 1380. But Sister Nancy's energy level clearly skews young, and her show, which relies on a handful of props and a good bit of audience interaction, rarely wants for an audience. She has performed everywhere from Chicago to East Timor and the Philippines. In 2011 alone, she's been scheduled to perform in 29 U.S. cities, all following knee surgery at the end of last year.
In the course of the play, Sister Nancy plays 14 different characters, often affecting an Italian accent.
"She's a wonderful performer," says Sister Regis Krusniewski of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who has seen the one-woman show twice. "What Nancy does is talk about the connection to what is going on in the world today. She makes it very contemporary.
"Anybody who likes people would like this play," Sister Regis adds, "or who admires people who do great things."
"It was a very difficult time in history," Sister Nancy says of St. Catherine's era, which included the return of the papacy to Rome after 67 years in Avignon, France. "And yet, there are some very strong parallels between the 21st century and the 14th century." Those include, she notes, scandal in the church and debate over the proper role of women
Acting, Sister Nancy says, came naturally for her and her siblings, who were always jockeying with one another for her parents' attention. Besides Bill and her, three other Murrays — elder brother Brian and younger bothers John and Joel — have evolved into entertainers.
"All of them, they were all good singers and dancers. It was a loud family, lots of competition and performing," Sister Nancy says. "Only the oldest was a real serious student. The rest of us, after dinner was done … when it came time for homework, well, most of us didn't quite get to it."
Bill, who falls square in the middle of the nine, wasn't even the most talented, his sister says, placing that mantle on older brother Brian Doyle-Murray, who wrote "Caddyshack," also appeared on "Saturday Night Live" for a time and has most recently had a recurring role on ABC's "The Middle."
"I've always thought Brian was the best actor," Sister Nancy says.
Brother Bill's success, she says in a way only someone's sister could get away with, has surprised her a bit. As a youngster, there was little that set him apart from his siblings, she says.
"Our dinner table was our first stage," she says, "and there was always that sense that, if you're younger, you should be seen and not heard, that the older ones are the wisdom people."
Not, she hastens to emphasize, that Bill wasn't talented. Maybe it was just a question of drive. But things changed, she said, after their father died in 1967, at 46.
Bill "had some wild teen years," she recalls. "Some of it was reaction to my father's death — that was very difficult, to lose dad. The two older brothers were out of the house at the time, and people kept saying, 'OK, you've got to take the place of your father now.' That's not the right thing to tell a teenager."
Still, Sister Nancy has always been one of her brother's staunchest fans. She has a special place in her heart for his first film, 1979's "Meatballs," in which she felt he was channeling their father and the way he used to discipline his children, and 1984's "The Razor's Edge," an adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel that was his first real dramatic role. Murray refused to make "Ghostbusters," Sister Nancy relates with clear admiration, until the studio agreed to let him make "The Razor's Edge."
"Nobody wanted to see Bill do anything serious at that point," she recalls, "but I Ioved 'Razor's Edge.'"
Fandom, Sister Nancy assures, endures — regardless.
"Sometimes my students would say to me, on Monday mornings they would come into school, 'Sister, did you see what your brother did the other night?'"
Sister Nancy chuckles softly. "No, I don't have approval power. Sometimes, especially when ("SNL") would do things about nuns, I would go, 'Oh God, no.'"
If you go
Sister Nancy Murray will bring her one-woman show, "Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times," to Baltimore Nov. 12 for two performances in LeClerc Hall on the campus of Notre Dame of Maryland University, 4701 N. Charles St. An 11 a.m. show will be geared to grade-school-age children, while a 7 p.m. show will be aimed at adults. Tickets are $20, $5 for students. Tickets to a 5:30 p.m. V.I.P. reception run $100. Proceeds benefit the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Information, including tickets: 410-377-7774, ext. 1151, or amssnd.org.