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On Stage: 'Divine Sister' pays tribute (almost) to every nun

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2012 - Shades of Julie Andrews’ Maria Von Trapp, Rosalind Russell in “The Trouble with Angels” and Debbie Reynolds’ “The Singing Nun” are all woven into Charles Busch’s “The Divine Sister,” presented by HotCity Theatre. The only nun missing is the flying one, but maybe I just failed to get the Sally Field reference.

Still, “The Divine Sister,” directed by Marty Stanberry and starring John Flack as Mother Superior (in the role debuted by Busch), is not only an homage to theatrical nuns, it’s an homage to homage. One could enjoy the play as a kind of word-search of dramatic references, "convent"-ional and otherwise:

One nun is named Agnes. Mother Superior has “Doubt.” Hey -- was that from “Mame?” And did I catch a whiff of “Gypsy?” Hold on -- “The DaVinci Code,” too?

You’ve heard of Jesus’ sister, Joyce, right?

The Gist:

Finances are bleak for St. Veronica’s School in Pittsburgh in 1966. Mother Superior unsuccessfully seeks help from a atheist Jewish widow (Susie Wall channelling Coco Chanel). She dramatically (everything she does is dramatic; she’s always ready for her closeup) turns down an offer from former lover Jeremy (Chopper Leifheit) to save the school with money made from publicizing the (questionable) healing powers of postulate Agnes (Alyssa Ward).

Rounding out the group are "New Yawker," Sister Acacius (Kristen Wylder) and the delightful St. Louis theater legend Lavonne Byers as both Sister Walburga and cleaning woman Mrs. MacDuffie.

Exaggerated horror, winking messages to the audience and talk of foot-long symbols of manhood are classic Charles Busch, known for his campy “Die, Mommie, Die!” and “Psycho Beach Party” as well as the more mainstream Broadway hit, “The Tale of the Allergists’ Wife.”

It’s the kind of humor that may have to grow on you, or maybe the whole thing just comes together in Act Two.

Following intermission, multiple plot twists involving babies, adoptions and the further revelation of a secret mission ratchet up interest. And before it’s over, we’re treated to (spolier alert!) Byers encased in a shiny, poured-on black catsuit, brandishing blonde braids and a gun.

A Morsel:

In Act One, Agnes questions Mother Superior’s choice to leave her job of crime reporting and join the convent, but Mother will have nun of it (sorry). Reassuring Agnes, she gives the young postulate a battle cry about their duty to save mankind from “the atheists, the adulterers, the homosexuals, the Dave Clark Five,” before breaking into a mangled “My Favorite Things”:

Raindrops on daisies, whiskers on old women
bright copper pennies and hiking and swimmin’

Before the close of the proverbial curtain, Mother Superior calls up her more worldly pre-convent self, but she’s still got a kind of faith, if only in her own abilities.

“It’s important to believe in miracles,” she said. “Even if you have to create them yourself.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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