‘The Divine Sister’ delights audiences with hilarious homage to Hollywood films about nuns

Charles Busch's play gets the seal of approval from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on opening night

New Conservatory Theatre Center/Courtesy

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Somehow, nuns are always funny. Despite their integral place in religious orders and their work in many communities, most of our associations with women in wimples come from movies and television like “Sister Act,” “The Sound of Music” or the classic “The Singing Nun.” With all of these penguin-dressed comedies in mind, the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco presents “The Divine Sister.”

Written by Charles Busch and directed by F. Allen Sawyer, “The Divine Sister” is a hilariously irreverent romp through camp and parody in a deliciously over-the-top style. The story centers around a small convent with money problems and — what else? — a dark secret. Taking on miracle healing, lost love and the inescapable silliness all musicals possess, the cast members obviously enjoy themselves in every twist and turn of this very funny plot. Drawing elements from “The Da Vinci Code” and “Agnes of God,” the play never leads you to where you think you’re going. Nothing is sacred here, and nothing is predictable.

On opening night, the audience rolled in the aisles at the unusual and disarming humor. Joe Wicht turns in a notable old-school drag performance of exaggerated femininity in a tall frame with a Harvey Fierstein voice in the role of Mother Superior. J. Conrad Frank outdoes any Joan Collins impersonator on Earth as Sister Walburga, with a German accent that could stop a Swiss watch. David Bicha triumphs as the teenage Agnes, with a doe-eyed dopiness that sets us up for the big reveal as only a talented player can do. The overall feel of the cast is a tight-knit group of very funny people who are having as much fun performing as the audience is watching.

Opening night was a delightful success. In the places where the technical aspects of the show were a little less than smooth, the cast knew how to deal with it like seasoned hams. As a bonus to the first-night crowd, the NCTC invited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to join the audience, bringing their safe-sex missionary work and the air of real live nuns in the seats. The Sisters were the best and most festive of guests, and their numinous presence made the whole night seem magical.

“The Divine Sister” is playing at the New Conservatory Theatre Center until June 29. Tickets range between $25 and $37, but the theater offers student rush right before the show if you’re feeling adventurous. The NCTC is an excellent small venue with a mission of showcasing the city’s diversity while providing a place for emerging artists and acts of all kinds. The venue puts on family-friendly shows as well as very adult plays and entertainment. Keep its calendar in mind — it’s convenient to BART to and very affordable for a night out.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].