Divine Sister is a Divine Historical Comedy about the Catholic Church and Its Lovable Nuns

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Divine Sister
Soho Playhouse
15 Van Dam St.
New York, N.Y.

I attended Roman Catholic grade school run by nuns in a small town in New Jersey in the 1950s. Like many students, I loved and hated the school at the same time.  There was something about it that intrigued me, though, because throughout my life I have been drawn to just about every film and play about nuns, whether the acting nuns or the singing nuns, featuring Sally Field or fields of lilies, the funnier the more enjoyable for me.

So you can understand how I, who ran the soda operation in the basement cafeteria for the sisters at a tidy profit for God, wound up, aching with anticipation, at the Soho Theater for Divine Sister, a mirthful romp through a Pittsburgh convent in 1966 starring the indefatigable Charles Busch, the madcap actor/writer and author of The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Allergist’s Wife.

I was not disappointed.  Divine Sister is a hysterical parody about the church that is simply divine.

The play starts with the arrival of the mysterious Sister Walburga from the order’s shadowy international headquarters in Berlin.  She has a thick German accent, a lust for Sister Acacius, and causes mayhem at St. Veronica’s iron-gated convent.  The nuns there are trying to handle the holy sightings of a first-year nun, Agnes, and, at the same time, raise money to save the convent from demolition.  Then Mother Superior, played by the mercurial Busch, rides in on a bike and the fun begins.

Early on, Mother Superior, with a somber look on her face and a gleeful look in her eyes, tells the audience that it is 1966, a time of “great social change” and that “we must stop it.”

From there, the singing and dancing nuns are off and running, often to the beat of Mother Superior’s guitar.  They spoof every movie ever made starring nuns, as well as the plays, in a parody that is not scorching as much as it is gentle rib poking with a wink.

Mother Superior is a fabulous creation.  Busch is sometimes serious, sometimes comic and always enchanting, especially when he raises his eyes towards heaven.  He tries to save the school, maintain order and shake down a local Jewish woman, Mrs. Levinson, for money, only to find… well, we’ll leave that alone.

Sister Acacius has an epiphany in the play.  She actually has a number of them, and rolls back and forth between her love of God and love of Sister Walburga.  At the end, just about everybody turns out to be someone different than they appear.

Divine Sister, like the play Sister Ignatius Explains in All for You a generation ago, is a brilliantly written and acted parody of nuns and the Catholic Church.  It is funny, biting and critical, but never overtly offensive.  People in the audience who are Catholic will understand all the nuances and roll with the jokes, but so will those from other religions (who, of course, as the nuns say, can never get to heaven).

The play makes several references to 1966, including the social upheaval of the era (Vietnam, civil rights, student disorder) and 1960s baseball stars like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.  Busch wisely keeps the action in 1966.  By doing so, he avoids the rifts in the church that began in the late 1960s, the closings of Catholic schools, church budgetary woes and the disgraceful child abuse by hundreds of priests that was uncovered later.  He also makes 1966 a pleasant time of remembrances for baby boomers in the audience and gives younger people a sharp and funny look at history.

Everyone also gets a nice glance at a number of nun movies that are spoofed:  The Sound of Music, Doubt, The Singing Nun, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Sister Act, The Singing Nun, The Flying Nun and The Trouble with Angels.

While Divine Sister entertains audiences each night, the play has not brought much mirth to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan blasted the play.  The Archbishop called it “insulting.”  He said it was pushing “cheap laughs at the expense of a bigoted view of the most noble women around.  These are nuns, mocked and held up for snickering.

He even went after the New York Times, practically charging them with collusion for writing stories about the play and exhibit.

The producers of Divine Sister said the play is more of a spoof on movies about nuns than about the actual sisters.  Dolan criticized a scene in which actor Busch, as a nun, showed a young boy how to swing a baseball bat.  The producers said that was a copy of a scene from The Bells of St. Mary’s in which nun Ingrid Bergman shows a boy boxing gloves.

“While our show is indeed irreverent, it is a celebration of the nuns in those iconic works, with a wink and a smile,” said a producer.

It was natural for the church to complain about the play; the church complains about everything.  Catholics should not see the play as an attack on their religion, but just another playful excursion by the enormously gifted Charles Busch.  He could have attacked the Jewish or Protestant religions with equal fervor.

Carl Andress does a fine job of keeping the several storylines of the play and never lets the parody overwhelm the story.  Busch’s supporting actors are excellent.  Alison Fraser is severe and mysterious as the Berlin nun.  Julie Halston is an at times bewildered and at times confident co-star (after all, she is the school’s wrestling coach), Amy Rutberg is enthusiastic as the ‘beatified’ Agnes, Jennifer Van Dyck wonderful as the slightly loony Mrs. Levinson and Jonathan Walker very funny as Jeremy, the man who sets up the second half of the play.

Worried about the parody and the church?  Go see the play for yourself, but if you do, be prepared to laugh for ninety straight minutes.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Daryl Roth and Bob Boyett, Scenic design: R.I. Whitehill, Costumes: Fabio Toblini, Lighting: Kirk Bookman, Sound: Jill BC DuBoff, Music: Lewis Flinn. Directed by Carl Andress.

CAST; Mother Superior (Charles Busch), Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser), Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), Agnes (Amy Rutberg), Mrs. Levinson (Jennifer Van Dyck), Jeremy (Jonathan Walker).

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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