'Handy Dandy'; Of judges and nuns

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One of the best plays in town right now is ''Handy Dandy,'' at the Lyric Stage. This is the premiere production of a new play by William Gibson, who brought us ''Two for the Seesaw,'' ''The Miracle Worker,'' and last year's acclaimed ''Goodly Creatures.'' It is a small, glowing nugget of a play in which a hardened Superior Court judge and a radical septuagenarian nun slowly come to friendship. You can hear the judge's shackles of bitterness and rigid sense of law come thudding to the ground under her gentle prodding and example. He emerges renewed.

This play gives us a lot we don't see much of, and hunger for. An unlikely (and platonic) friendship filled with surprises. A portrait of a spirited, independent, and wise woman. An unpreachy sense of political and religious conviction (she has come to trial for trespassing at the Seabrook nuclear power plant). And some splendid lines: The nun says of her repeated convictions, ''This is my third time and the charm is all chewed out of it.''

''Handy Dandy'' starts off on an obvious note (judge boasting loudly about a conquest). Gibson goes for cheap laughs in having his characters' gusto for life shown by their ability to swear. And Nehemiah Persoff, as the judge, while basically fine, lacks subtlety.

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But Anne Shropshire's performance as the nun is filled with lovely, delicate shadings. She has the backbone of Katharine Hepburn, the looniness of Ruth Gordon, and she thoroughly wins us over. Closes Sunday.

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