By John Quinn
It takes a particularly wacky sense of humor to appreciate “camp.” The genre, through parody and satire, provides fresh insight by skewering cultural conventions. Like the girl with the curl, though, when it’s good it’s very, very good and when it’s bad it’s horrid. When the “girl” in question is the Ringwald Theatre’s esteemed Artistic Director Joe Bailey, “very good” becomes “splendid.” Two years after mounting the playwright’s achingly funny “Die, Mommie, Die!” Bailey dons heels and habit in Charles Busch’s “The Divine Sister.”
It’s spring in Pittsburgh, and the year is 1966. St. Veronica’s School and Convent is falling down, and Mother Superior (Bailey) is ready to raze the place and build anew – but there’s no money. She approaches a local philanthropist, Mrs. Levinson (Julia Garlotte), but Sister’s ham-handed shake-down fails to impress the potential donor.
There’s trouble lurking behind closed doors of the convent. Mother Superior has to deal with the increasingly hysterical behavior of Agnes (Meredith Deighton), a postulant to the order and a wanna-be mystic. She’s aided in her travails by her long time, go-to girl, Sister Acacius (Lisa Jesswein), who doubles as the school’s wrestling coach. Who should arrive from Hollywood but Jeremy (Jamie Richards), ex-reporter and ex-flame of Mother’s? Jeremy wants to buy the film rights to Agnes’ story. Will Mother Superior fall to temptation and commercialize Agnes for profit? Will she forsake her vows and become “Susan” again – crack girl reporter, Jeremy’s professional rival and lover? And what sinister secret is Sister Walburga (Melissa Beckwith) hiding under her wimple?
That’s the cast of characters, but the plot is ever-so more convoluted. There are improbable layers of identity, both mistaken and revealed. What is absolutely choice here is Busch’s rock solid script. While “Die, Mommie, Die” is an homage to melodramatic film roles of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and a host of others, “The Divine Sister” is a knowing send-up of the Hollywood nun flick. Here his inspiration seems to be Rosalind Russell, who starred in “The Trouble with Angels” and its sequel. Then too, Russell created “Hildy Johnson,” the ace journalist in “His Girl Friday,” with whom “Susan” shares more than a passing resemblance. “The Divine Sister” is silly, but by no means simple. It is a literate, tightly crafted script that demonstrates the playwright’s aesthetic: “I guess what I rebelled against was the notion that campy means something is so tacky or bad that it’s good, and that I just didn’t relate to.” Amen, brother!
Richards successfully avoids the pitfalls inherent in directing a play in which one is also acting. The tone is just right for camp; it plays up the melodrama without falling into burlesque. Two of the performers absolutely nail the technique. Deighton as the fluttery Agnes trills her way through the show, sounding a little like Billy Burke in “The Wizard of Oz.” Also in top form is Jesswein as the tennis shoe clad, tough-gal Sister Acacius.
Here’s where I might say that the towering Bailey stands head and shoulders above the cast, but Richards’ ensemble is too tight for that to be more that literally true. His performance, though, is a knock-out, from Mother Superior’s entrance on a bicycle to tying up loose ends at the curtain. Bailey channels every stereotype of Hollywood sisterhood: She is kindly, wise, determined, yet marked with an indelible certainty that she’s better than you. Sister is the bastion of the old order, and the best line of the night may be her assertion, “My dear, we are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it.”
Wild and witty beyond words, “The Divine Sister” is The Ringwald’s latest entry in a string of successful campy comedies. It looks, if you will forgive me, like it’s becoming a “habit.”
‘The Divine Sister’
The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through June 4. 100 minutes without intermission. $10-15. 248-545-5545. http://www.theringwald.com