Missionary Style

A former Mother Teresa volunteer brings us her sister act

"The miracle," Mother Teresa once remarked of her labor amid the poor of Calcutta, "is not that we do this work but that we are happy to do it." True for the angelic Mother Teresa perhaps, but for writer-performer Aviva Jane Carlin it was sufficiently miraculous that she found herself in Calcutta at all. In 1988, the South Africa–born and London University–trained actress was poised to leave for America to film a movie with her brother. But after a chain of events including a few eerily apt Bible verses, a felicitous wrong number, and film delays, she found herself winging toward India with the aim of volunteering alongside "the saint of the gutters."

In Mother Teresa Girl, Carlin reflects on the three months she spent with the Missionaries of Charity—making up beds for the tubercular and serving curry to undernourished little girls. As she moves about her apartment in the present day, packing supplies to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina, she narrates her own experiences and those of her fellow volunteers. There's flighty Englishwoman Franny, who fears she likes "rumpy-pumpy" rather too much to become a nun; prickly German Demeter, who chides the nuns for inefficiency; callow American Ruby, who longs for communion with God; and a few others.

Apparently, Mother Teresa took as her maxim Jesus' words to the faithful in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus thanks them for feeding him and clothing him, but the crowd puzzles—they don't recall inviting Jesus to supper or lending him trousers. Jesus explains, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me." Carlin transmutes Mother Teresa's equation—that by serving the poor, one serves God—into the notion that by telling the stories of her fellows she will tell hers. It's a miscalculation. Carlin ably differentiates her various characters and deftly moves among them, but the different voices seem more a histrionic boast (albeit an able one) than a compelling structure. Perhaps it's unwelcome praise, but Carlin's various voices and characters aren't nearly as striking as her own.

Second to nun: Carlin
photo: Amy Feinberg
Second to nun: Carlin

Outfitted in a royal-blue two-piece, sashaying her plenteous bulk from one side of the stage to the other, Carlin has an impressive and generous presence. When she left India after three months—a mishap at the visa office prevented a longer stay—and returned to the stage, Carlin recalls that she found herself changed. "For the first time," she says, "I wanted nothing back. All I wanted was to give the show to the people in the theater." Even if this particular show is somewhat ill conceived, it's pleasant to report that neither Carlin's desire, nor her ability to fulfill it, has flagged.

 
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