It’s 1966 and St. Veronica’s, a crumbling Pittsburgh convent school, is a hot bed of intrigue and hidden agendas. At the center of the story, there’s a young postulant who may or may not hear ethereal voices and be capable of miraculous healing. Drawn into orbit around her are a grab bag of misfits and wacky stereotypes pulled straight from central casting: A handsome fedora-wearing reporter who wants to secure Hollywood film rights to the young girl’s story, a mysterious emissary from the convent’s mother house in Berlin, suddenly rattling everybody’s cage. Throw in an earth-shaking religious coverup complete with albino monk and a singing nun, and the result is the circus of lowbrow delights that is playwright Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister. Think of it as a mashed-up send-up of all those ’60s-era religious movies. Or the unofficial gag reel for everything from The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima to The Song of Bernadette and The Sound of Music. Along with a dash of The Da Vinci Code for good measure.
In The Divine Sister, Busch may be messing with our heads about organized religion a little bit, but mostly he’s aiming spit-wads at Hollywood’s sanctity-addled, white bread ideal of religious orders. For the most part, Divine Sister just doesn’t take itself seriously enough to qualify as a satire. The nearest it gets to social commentary is when Mother Superior (Jimmy Flannery) describes her order’s mission vis-a-vis the swinging ’60s world outside the convent’s walls. “We are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it.”
Director Keely Enright hits the right note throughout, emphasizing the screwball comedy at the play’s heart and sliding as quickly as possible over those two or three places in the script where the playwright’s convoluted intentions get tangled up in themselves and threaten to derail the fun.
Enright’s cast gleefully play it big: speaking punch lines directly to the audience, sweeping onto and off the stage like old vaudevillians, leaving no comedic glimmer unexploited. It’s all great fun.
In the role Busch intended to be played by a man and which he himself played in the comedy’s first run, Jimmy Flannery’s Mother Superior is a Play-Doh-ish clown prince, channeling Dick Van Dyke in his sitcom days. With the move to its new digs on Woolfe Street, Village Rep has moved from TV screen-sized stage to anamorphic widescreen, and Flannery is seemingly capable of pulling in each end of that long stage simply by extending his arms. He is an absolute treat to watch.
Three cast members pull double duty. Sam Andrews plays the atheist Mrs. Levinson, a dour philanthropist the nuns hope will relieve the convent’s financial woes, but Andrews really scores with her portrayal of timorous Timothy, the gawky kid with a big, wide-eyed crush on the bully who both torments him and inspires a priceless confession.
Robbie Thomas is Jeremy, the former reporter turned Hollywood guy, and Brother Venerius, albino monk, daffy co-conspirator with the sinister nun Sister Walburga (Lynda Harvey-Carter). In each of their clandestine meetings, as albino monk and German nun, Thomas and Harvey-Carter give us Boris and Natasha style cartoonish gold. Harvey-Carter trades the nun’s habit for a mop and pail and lilting brogue when she later emerges as Mrs. MacDuffie the Irish cleaning lady, bearer of life-altering revelations.
Every management level nun needs a confidant and Flannery’s Mother Superior has a terrific one: Sister Acacius (Kathy Summer). Hilarious in her own right, Summer’s Acacius may have what amounts to the most nuanced character here. Acacius is an old-school broad in the best sense, and while Summer gives her all the spitfire energy the role demands, she’s also well up for the task of delivering some of the most sober moments in this farcical play.
As Agnes, the possibly miracle working postulant, Emily Wilhoit solidly delivers her character’s slightly daft and potentially delusional devotion. Wilhoit’s task is to tread a fine line between credibility and caricature. Wilhoit doesn’t miss a beat. And her Sound of Music scene with Flannery is one of the best in this hilarious show.
The Divine Sister is a clear winner from Village Rep.