note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
When award-winning actress Kathleen Turner starred on Broadway in a dramatic role she covets, nun Sister Jamison Connelly, in Matthew Lombardo’s three-person play, “High,” she was devastated when it closed within six days.
The play isn’t pleasant, nor pretty, with strong warnings that it contains mature themes, strong language and nudity.
It’s an ugly look at addiction, to which playwright Lombardo and Turner are deeply committed to exposing, and Turner, with co-star Evan Jonigkeit, delivers a commanding, power-packed performance that leaves audiences hushed.
Lombardo writes first-hand about the subject, having been a Catholic with a crystal meth addiction, while Turner battled alcoholism to distill the sting of painful rheumatoid arthritis. She also helped shape and develop the play.
Turner, Lombardo, Director Rob Ruggiero, and “High” producers Ann Cady Scott and Timothy J. Hampton (in association with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis) are so committed to “High,” which they revamped, they’re taking it on a national tour, to eight-10 cities, ending next year in London’s West End.
They have already garnered success in St. Louis and Hartford, and were warmly received during their brief stint last week at Cutler-Majestic Theatre in Boston. From here, the show travels to Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and other sites, before culminating in London, and Lombardo is currently working on the screenplay.
As Sister Jamison, Turner portrays a crusty, sardonic, homeless, recovering alcoholic with painful personal memories, who embraced religion and God as salvation and redemption. She’s a tough, foul-mouthed, hard-hitting rehabilitation counselor at St. Francis, a Catholic residential facility, where even-tempered Father Michael Delpapp (Timothy Altmeyer) has requested –-- no, instructed –-- her to handle an almost impossible case, 19-year-old gay, drug-dealing, addicted prostitute, Cody Randall, (Evan Jonigkeit). Cody happens to be Father Michael’s nephew, son of the priest’s younger, addicted prostitute sister, who was found dead in a dumpster. Cody’s fate isn’t much better. The police arrested him, after finding him in a hotel, lying next to a dead, 14-year-old male addict. To save Cody from prison and whatever hope there is for the teen-ager, Father Michael brought him to the church’s treatment center.
In their controversial first encounter, Sister Jamison shocks Cody, calling him a freak and a garden-variety addict, adding she was formerly an alcoholic who resorted to slugging down rubbing alcohol and vanilla extract – anything she could get her hands on.
During their explosive sessions, Sister Jamison learns sordid, ugly facts about Cody’s life that makes even her wince, recoil, in abject defeat. She teaches Cody the Rosary, hoping to avert his self-destruction, but realizes later he’s beyond her power to help him.
On David Gallo’s sparsely-decorated stage, with its brilliant starlit backdrop provided by lighting designer John Lasiter, Turner narrates between scenes, with sporadic, explanatory monologues, as the sky sparkles around her. She toys with that word, high, in religious and drug abuse references, emotions and aspirations.
Her encounters with the troubled youth are exasperating, yet exhilarating, a battle that Sister Jamison thinks she cannot win, because Cody is self-defeated, and Father Michael is his ennabler. She employs understanding, tough love, friendship, until she becomes locked in a gut-wrenching scene at the end of the first act, when Cody, during a drug-incensed episode, attacks her.
At first glance, the ending appears predictable, but isn’t. “High” exposes more hideous facts about Cody and Sister Jamison that’s enough to make Pollyanna shrivel up and slink away.