Gun-running mothers and nuns in shorts

October 2, 1991

Walking On Sticks
Written by Sara Cathcart and Andrea Lemon
Performed by Sara Cathcart
Anthill Theatre, South Melbourne
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

An Australian tourist arrives in Nicaragua to visit an old friend. Shortly after her arrival, the friend is called away to Mexico and leaves her in the care of a US nun who has worked in the war zone, helping victims of the contra war.

This is the first nun the tourist has ever seen in shorts. Next door lives a middle-aged, devoutly Catholic mother who ran guns for the Sandinistas during the revolution. Later, in New York, the tourist meets a former US Army drill sergeant who tells how she quit in disgust after being sent on a secret mission: "Well, honey, it was 1984 and it was in Central America, so where the hell do you think we were?"

These characters, all played by Sarah Cathcart, are based on her experiences in New York and Nicaragua in 1989 and 1990 and on interviews with women on both sides of the lines in the contra war. In an outstanding performance, Cathcart moves fluently from one character to another by simply changing an accent, gesture or inflection, bringing each woman to life in all her complexity.

The tourist — obviously Cathcart herself — gives the play much of its humour as she copes with a severe dose of culture shock. She knows little of Nicaragua's history and is initially repelled by the country's poverty and the more macho and violent aspects of its culture, symbolised by a bullfight which she watches with a mixture of excitement and horror. But as she learns more about the history of the country and the struggle of its people for liberation, her attitude begins to change.

Francis, the nun, describes her work in the war zone. She speaks of journeys on foot to bring medical supplies to peasant communities in areas where the contra forces are active — "You don't talk or laugh, and you avoid walking on sticks" — of the atrocities committed by the contras, and of being taken for questioning by contras, locked in a hut that contains supplies of food, medicine and arms sent by her own government. She struggles with the contradiction of her support for the revolution and her membership of the Catholic Church, the hierarchy of which have continually opposed it.

Doris, the tough, hard-drinking former US soldier, is confused and bitter, torn between her patriotism and respect for the military which gives working-class women one of the few opportunities for a higher education and a career, and her anger at the government that tricked and betrayed her.

The most unforgettable of these characters is Dona Esperanza, the Nicaraguan mother who makes and sells tortillas for a living, and, like many other women, was drawn into revolutionary activity through her children's involvement. Simply and directly, she tells a story of heroism — of taking arms and supplies to the Sandinistas in her basket of tortillas, of the constant visits to the morgue to see if of the day the National Guard burst into her house and took away her youngest son, who was never seen again.

Cathcart's brilliant performance inspires her audience with its portrayal of the courage and strength of these women. She reminds us that these qualities exist in ordinary people everywhere — and will ensure that the Nicaraguan revolution, despite its recent setbacks, will eventually triumph.

Issue