Divine Sister: Get thee to this nunnery

Matthew McGee leads a heaven-sent cast in Stageworks’ latest comedy.

Posted by Mark E. Leib on Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 6:00 PM

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VOW OF HILARITY: The Divine Sister cast, from left: Jonelle Meyer, Spencer Meyers, Georgia Mallory Guy, Matthew McGee, Nicole Jeannine Smith, and Alana Opie. - CAROLINE JETT
  • CAROLINE JETT
  • VOW OF HILARITY: The Divine Sister cast, from left: Jonelle Meyer, Spencer Meyers, Georgia Mallory Guy, Matthew McGee, Nicole Jeannine Smith, and Alana Opie.
Matthew McGee deserves a MacArthur comic genius grant, a regional Tony award for Most Hilarious, a star on the Franklin Street walk of fame, and the funky keys to City Hall. In Stageworks’ delicious The Divine Sister, McGee just couldn’t be funnier. And unless I’m mistaken, he’s having as much of a blast playing the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s Convent and School as we are watching him do it.

From the moment he appears onstage — on a bicycle, exuding beatitude — McGee is in total control of his grateful audience, milking Charles Busch’s script for every laugh it can render, all while reminding us, with Brechtian shrewdness, that he knows that we know that he knows it’s all a joke. And Sister’s success doesn’t stop with McGee. All five other actors turn in terrific performances, and Karla Hartley’s don’t-miss-a-detail direction is a hyper-campy triumph.
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Even the design of this winner — Frank Chavez’s stunning set, suggesting through soaring abstract elements both the interior and exterior of a church — is of tip-top quality, and Hartley’s soundcraft is so inspired, it deserves a respect all its own. Does the world really need a parody of nun-centered books, films, TV shows, plays? Maybe not, but it does need more reasons to hoot, and Sister delivers. Take your most bummed-out, hollow-eyed, existentialist friends — and watch them revive.

What Busch’s surprisingly intellectual script asks us to believe is that St. Veronica’s is falling apart, and Mother Superior is depending on Jewish Mrs. Levinson to contribute the funds for a new building. Problem is, Mrs. Levinson is a card-carrying atheist with no time for religion. And in any case, St. Veronica’s is no peaceful place; roiling it at the same moment are a postulant who claims to see St. Thomas Aquinas in a rhubarb pie, a German visitor whose secret aim is to prepare the world for Jesus’ sister, and a small boy who wants help furthering his same-sex aspirations. Mother Superior herself is far from simple: earlier in her life she was a tough-talking, hard-living reporter, and now she’s confronted by an ex-lover aware of the visionary postulant on her premises, and sent by Hollywood to finalize a movie deal.

As the references to other media sisters multiply — here’s a singing nun, here’s a flying nun, here’s the nun from Doubt, here’s one from The Da Vinci Code — and as improbable relations between characters proliferate, we find ourselves recognizing that author Busch isn’t just making fun of the pious (à la The Book of Mormon), but seems to be legitimately struggling with many of the attitudes he satirizes. There’s certainly more respect here for Catholicism than you’ll find in, say, a Chris Durang play like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.

And there’s so much good acting, giving Matt McGee so much to work with. Let’s start with Nicole Jeannine Smith, who plays the visionary Agnes at such a high pitch, it seems only logical that stigmata should appear on her palms. Like all the actors directed here by Hartley, Smith jettisons all inhibitions to give us a wonderfully wild performance, part Saint Joan and part Agnes of God, part panther and part Pomeranian. Then there’s Georgia Mallory Guy as Mrs. Levinson, a fashion-obsessed matron whose atheism is so deep, she finds agnostics repulsively irresolute.

Guy is also unexpectedly tender as handicapped Timmy, who longs for a convent athlete and who can’t understand why other kids — and one of the sisters — call him such foul names. As German Sister Walburga, Jonelle Meyer delivers the funniest performance of her life — her refusal to stop observing the scene even after an exit draws well-deserved chortles — and as hardy Sister Acacius, Alana Opie is the epitome of working-class sobriety (until her sobriety vanishes).

Then there’s Spencer Meyers as Jeremy, the man Mother Superior left behind. I liked Meyers in the role of Hedvig (she of the Angry Inch) a few months ago, but this performance is so warm and solid (and silly and obscene), I have to prefer it.
There’s a little singing in the production — it’s not very notable — and there’s a bit of vaguely endearing dancing, choreographed by Steven Flaa. But it’s McGee as Mother Superior who owns The Divine Sister, and it’s his astonishing professionalism that makes this production so superb. Somebody give him a gold medal or two — or six. 

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