Sally Struthers In Modesto? Nunsense!

Sally Struthers performed in "Nunsense" on Friday night, and has two more performances today and Sunday at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
Sally Struthers performed in "Nunsense" on Friday night, and has two more performances today and Sunday at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

For years, "Nunsense" creator Danny Goggin wanted Sally Struthers to appear in his heavenly musical comedy, but she always had scheduling conflicts.

Now, she finally is available. The "All in the Family" star performs in the wildly popular show's 25th national anniversary tour stopping at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto next week.

"She is one of the most fabulous Mother Superiors we have ever had," Goggin said in a phone interview from Montana, where the tour kicked off. "She can sing, she can dance and, of course, she's hilariously funny. It's just amazing what she's brought to the show."

Full of wacky humor, "Nunsense" centers on five nuns who teach at a school and must quickly organize a talent show to raise money to bury four colleagues who died from eating tainted soup. Audience members don't have to know the saints and the catechism to appreciate the show, Goggin, 65, said.

"They don't have to be Catholic because it has nothing to do with religion," he said. "It's nuns in an 'I Love Lucy' situation."

Goggin said he wrote the show as a joke and debuted it at a little cabaret in New York in 1983. From there, it moved to off-Broadway and then snowballed. He ended up writing more than a half-dozen sequels, including the all-male "Nunsense A-Men" and the holiday revue "Nuncrackers"

The franchise has been a big hit in the valley, with Modesto Performing Arts, Playhouse Merced and the West Side Theatre in Newman all staging various versions over the past six years. In the past six months, 160 productions have been done around the world, Goggin said.

He said the national tour should top anything people have seen.

"People are really going to see the authentic show from New York," he said. "I think people will be blown away by this production."

The show was inspired by Goggin's experiences going to parochial school in Alma, Mich. Each of the play's nuns — even Sister Mary Amnesia, who lost her memory when she was hit on the head with a crucifix — is based on a nun Goggin knew.

The nun who inspired Sister Mary Amnesia was Goggin's third-grade teacher and lived in a total fantasy world. Sometimes, she would tell the class she forgot how to write the letter B.

"We loved her," Goggin said. "She was the prettiest nun in the world — she looked like Miss America."

The real nuns all saw the show and loved it, Goggin said. Nuns in general enjoy that the show reveals that they don't just sit around being holy all the time.

"You can always tell that nuns are out there in the audience because they laugh louder than anyone else," he said.

Goggin is still a practicing Catholic and has a lot of affection for the church.

"I think the church is not necessarily all the rules and stuff, it's more the spirituality of it," he said. "During the week, I'll go to Mass. It's just quiet and it takes you out of the rat race of life. That makes me feel really good to do that. It's a nice grounding thing for me. I'm a liberal person, but to have that peaceful time is a nice thing."

When asked to explain the "Nunsense" franchise's wide appeal, which cuts across all religious boundaries, Goggin said he thinks people like its lighthearted spirit. With all the troubles that life can bring, sometimes people just want to have fun and laugh.

"This is all about giving people two hours release from the daily miseries of what we hear on television," he said.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.