It is a dark and stormy night. It is Pittsburgh in 1966, and the venerable Convent of Saint Veronica is in imminent danger of crumbling into ruins. If this were Ibsen, this might be perceived as a metaphorical tiger at the gates, but this is Charles Busch, and his “The Divine Sister” has no such pretensions of satirizing any religious icons but instead the long harrowed, if not hallowed, history of Hollywood stereotypes. One by one, in inevitable Agatha Christie mode, Busch manages to roast a goodly, if not godly, number of these memorable madams, from Julie Andrews to Ingrid Bergman, and, more darkly, the whole coven of “Black Narcissus”, until there‘s not a single nun left unskewered. It’s not the author’s theological baggage that’s on display here, as he freely admits to no such upbringing, but an obvious affection for these historical and hysterical ladies.
That’s not to say that Mother Superior (and she is unmistakably that) is some clueless cardboard creation. While she’s hilariously funny in the quite capable hands of Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman, for those of you in the habit of keeping score), she’s no dope and not easily duped. As she explains it all for you at the beginning of the play, the good sisters are “living in a time of great social change; we must do everything in our power to stop it”.
How Mother Superior, aka Susan (don’t ask) manages to triumph over the course of a fast-paced uninterrupted one hundred minutes is best left to a theatergoer to discover entirely on her or his own. The fun of the work is in the multitude of backstories, with enough subplots and sub-subplots to fill several evenings at the theater. Suffice it to say that “The Divine Sister” is like Gilbert and Sullivan on speed.
In lesser earthly hands, this could be over-the-top camp, and it comes perilously close at times, but the writing, the direction (by Larry Coen) and especially the fang-in-cheek acting by the aforementioned Jeffery/Varla Jean and the entire cast (six in all, most performing more than one role) save us from such a penance. In the nunnery, there are Sasha Castroverde’s Agnes (of God?) who is no stranger to the sound of music, Kathy St. George’s Sister Walburga, seemingly living out some code other than DiVinci, and Paula Plum’s Sister Acacius, whose street-wise sister is an amalgam of so many allusions and illusions that she encapsulates generations of the celluloid-ly saintly. Add to the mix Ellen Colton’s atheistic Mrs. Levinson (yes, no religious faiths were omitted in the making of this “movie”) and Christopher Michael Brophy’s Brother Venerius, not to mention the other roles they play which will go unmentioned here lest what plot threads there are be prematurely unraveled. There’s not a clinker in the bunch. The same can be said for the set (by Christina Todesco), lighting (by Daniel H. Jentzen), costumes (by Charles Schoonmaker) and sound (by Arshan Gailus), none of which would be out of place in your basic B movie. It’s all so perfectly pitched.
To mistake this for just another drag show or an exercise in low comedy could be sinful for any mortal. For any serious theatergoer, there can be but one exhortation. Get thee to a funnery.