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This nun has a beard . . . for now

Jeffery Roberson (sans facial hair) will play Mother Superior in the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Divine Sister.’’ Jeffery Roberson (sans facial hair) will play Mother Superior in the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Divine Sister.’’ (john b. barrois)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / October 15, 2011

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It’s 1966, and Mother Superior has her hands full at financially challenged St. Veronica’s convent school in Pittsburgh.

The young postulant Agnes sees holy visions in a rhubarb pie and a student’s dirty underwear. Sister Acacius can’t take any more of that nonsense. And the severe Sister Walburga has arrived from Germany on a secret mission to contact the sinister albino monk hiding in the basement. Can Mother Superior keep St. Veronica’s together, especially when a man from her past comes back to challenge her faith?

The New England premiere of the 2010 off-Broadway comedy “The Divine Sister,’’ by Charles Busch, features familiar Boston actresses Paula Plum as Sister Acacius and Kathy St. George as Sister Walburga, with Sasha Castroverde as Agnes.

But the central role of Mother Superior - which Busch played in New York - goes to Jeffery Roberson, best known for his solo shows as the drag character Varla Jean Merman. The New Orleans-based actor was most recently seen here in 2010, as Christine in the Gold Dust Orphans’ “Phantom of the Oprah.’’ For that, he won an Elliot Norton Award for best musical performance.

“Believe it or not, I’ve played a nun before. I was Agnes in ‘Agnes of God,’ ’’ Roberson says. “The last time I did a role in Boston, I played a high school girl, and now I’m playing Mother Superior. I guess my ingénue days are over.’’

“The Divine Sister’’ re-teams Roberson with director Larry Coen, whose work on “Phantom’’ won him a Norton Award, too.

Busch’s play is a celebration of a certain kind of Hollywood nun, Coen says. These are not the ruler-swinging classroom bullies of legend, but the more sympathetic characters in movies like “The Bells of St. Mary’s,’’ “Black Narcissus,’’ “The Nun’s Story,’’ and “Song of Bernadette.’’

“This is a very popular genre that shows up again and again in what I’d call the pre-1970s era of feminism. You could create an on-screen female world where romance was not even going to be a question,’’ Coen says. “I think it was a way of telling stories about powerful women and groups of women that audiences of the day, particularly female audiences, were hungry for. It was actually a kind of radical piece of storytelling that was clothed in a very conservative garb.’’

“Let’s face it, nuns get a bad rap,’’ Roberson says in a separate interview. “This is an homage to when nuns were fun and you had ‘The Flying Nun’ and all those great movies like ‘The Trouble With Angels.’ There’s no evil nuns in this. Well, there’s one that wants to blow up the world, but. . .’’

Coen bought a stack of the nun-movie DVDs and has been circulating them among the cast. He says he’s also prone to show a scene or two after a break in rehearsals.

“There’s much more permission in the style itself to [play] bigger than you normally think you would be,’’ Coen says. “Somebody doesn’t just turn around in these films; they whirl around. They don’t just look at somebody; their eyes sparkle and snap. The style of acting is almost italicized, so we look at a scene or two to give ourselves permission to be bigger.’’

There’s another reason, too, for that sparkle and snap in SpeakEasy’s production.

“When your leading lady is played by a very tall, albeit very beautiful, man, you have to consider femininity as a part of your performance,’’ Coen says. “What the actresses have to actually do is consider, probably for the first time, ‘How do I play a woman?’

“And they’re also nuns, so it’s not like they can do a very girly walk, say, because that option is not available to them. So they really have to make choices about how to play the womanhood of these characters, and they have to do that because the femininity of the leading lady character is a construct by a male performer,’’ Coen says.

Roberson doesn’t analyze it quite as deeply.

“I’m sure they must be confused,’’ he says. “I’ve never worked with any of these actors before, and right now I have a beard, so I’m sure it’s even weirder to work with me.’’

Drag never quite comes across in rehearsal the way it does in performance anyway, Roberson says. “There’s this magic that happens when you actually put it on and you’re there and you have the audience. It’s a completely different thing.’’

The actresses “are all very funny, but I’m probably the most feminine of all of them, even with a beard,’’ he says, laughing. “I don’t mean to insult them, but they know what I mean.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

THE DIVINE SISTER

Presented by: SpeakEasy Stage Company

At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Friday through Nov. 19. Tickets: $30-$55. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com