Underwear stains bearing the likeness of a saint is the first sign that St. Veronica’s convent has some dirty laundry to be aired. While the The Divine Sister has many outrageously funny moments, it’s an inspired comedy about Mother Superior’s (Varla Jean Merman, aka Jeffery Roberson) efforts to save a crumbling cloister and address a few crises in faith. Theatre 13’s production filled the house at the Mid-City Theatre during its first weekend.
The convent is literally falling apart, and Mother Superior’s last desperate hope is to approach a formerly Jewish, atheistic philanthropist for the money to tear it down and build a new one. Meanwhile, Sister Mary Acacius (Olive Another) tries to throttle a young postulant, Agnes (Molly Ruben-Long), who claims to communicate with saints, and a battle-axe of an older German nun, Sister Wallburga (Michael Sullivan), is trying to enforce her own sense of order. All the rumors of strange phenomena draw the attention of Hollywood agent Jeremy (Gary Rucker), who wants to buy the rights to a miraculous story.
Though some elements are farcical, Charles Busch’s (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party) play does not rely on sacrilege or drag jokes. In the original production, only Mother Superior was cast in drag (played by Busch himself). Under Ricky Graham’s direction, the entire cast shines as each character copes with a hidden past or secret and tries to make their tribulations and devotions meaningful. Varla is hilarious and unflappable as the kind shepherd who tries to care for her order, including coaching an unathletic young boy (Tari Hohn Lagasse), but she’s also forceful and cunning enough to put the hard sell on the wealthy Ms. Levinson (also Hohn). And she has her own illustrious past and desire to sing. Olive Another is a new face on local stages and is outstanding as Sister Mary Acacius, whose self-effacing servitude has her on the edge of an epic breakdown. Cloaked in her habit, she works wonders with eye-raising expressions of disbelief and awe. Uncloaked, she’s out of this world. As good as Sullivan is as the rigid and antiquated Sister Wallburga, he almost brings the house down as the harried and vulgar maid Mrs. MacDuffie in her only scene. Allowing film agent Jeremy into the convent doesn’t seem like a good idea to Mother Superior, but the tension between her and Rucker is brilliant.
The nuns’ various plights allude to many popular films, obviously including Agnes of God and The Singing Nun. One doesn’t need to get any of the references to understand the action, but they are shrewdly employed nonetheless. It’s a strangely cathartic and gleefully entertaining show. — Will Coviello
March 1-4, 8-10
The Divine Sister
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 6 p.m. Sun., March 4
Mid-City Theatre, 3540 Toulouse St., 488-1460