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Monday, 18 October 2010 15:02

Starry, Starry Night: Kathleen Turner in High

Written by Robert A. Mitchell
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Starry, Starry Night: Kathleen Turner in High
repstl.org/Jerry Naunheim Jr

From before the moment that the house lights go off, and the bare, black wall we've been looking at lights up with hundreds of tiny stars, we already know what we're in for – because we know that Kathleen Turner is at the Rep to do a star-turn in the world premiere, pre-Broadway drama, High, by Matthew Lombardo, directed by Rob Ruggiero. It takes plenty of fortitude for an actor, whose face we've seen hundreds of times on DVD, and on screens big and small, to bare all, figuratively, for a few hours, live onstage, to a few hundred people. You can never say that Kathleen Turner doesn't have plenty of fortitude.

One can certainly see why Ms. Turner is drawn to the role of Sister Jamison Connelly, a wise-cracking, formerly alcoholic, no-nonsense girl-from-the-hood-turned-social-working-bride-of-Christ. But Sister's not really bad, she's "just drawn that way." (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) And, Turner doesn't try to pull a Meryl Streep, and hide so deeply in the role, that she's unrecognizable. She just inhabits the role, filling it with everything we already know about Kathleen Turner, and then just a little more.

When Sister Connelly is asked – well, not so much asked as ordered – by her superior, Father Michael Delpapp (played by Michael Barresse), to oversee the case of a heavily drug-addicted young man who is under suspicion for murder, she balks, understandably. Why here, and why her? And, when in struts Evan Jonigkeit as young Cody Randall, strung-out and seemingly insouciant (as drug addicts are wont to be), Sister's apprehensions are brought to life. But even the dregs of humanity deserve God's aid and forgiveness. So she sets on the task of every social psychologist, puzzling together the hows and whys that have brought Cody to the brink of either rehab or life in prison. Inevitably, she learns more about herself, Cody, Father Delpapp, the world and the nature of God along the way. There are plenty of twists and turns, which, course, I will not divulge here, because I hate that, but I do have one spoiler alert: there is brief nudity... and NO, not by Kathleen Turner.

The script has some very good dialogue, and some hilarious one-liners given to the foul-mouthed Sister. In fact, all three actors get to show off their senses of humor. However, I found myself knowing exactly plot-wise where we were going, albeit not so much how we'd get there. And, I could've used a little less exposition in the form of monologue, although most of those are delivered well.

Kathleen Turner shines when relishing the bad-girl spirit of the Sister, and is really quite touching in many moments, especially the scenes with Cody. However, there are a few moments when I was aware that she was cognizant of being "Kathleen Turner, the actress", specifically, the intermission cliffhanger, and the last few lines of the play (which, I have to say, is partially the writer's fault). On the whole, she delivers, as expected. At first, I thought Michael Barresse was too young for the role of the priest, but as events unfold, this choice becomes clear. He is needed to be a little more patient and progressive than most priests might be in this situation, and Barresse handles the seeming celebrity of being a priest with a cockiness that seems a little short of the pride of which Father Delpapp accuses the Sister. Evan Jonigkeit, as Cody, pulls out every inner-city junkie trick in the book, from the physical ticks to the Brando-slash-"Welcome Back Kotter" vocal delivery , to the James Dean-angst. Amazingly, however, he makes it work! He knows the show actually hinges on his performance, and he delivers better than admirably. In fact, the scene where he and Sister battle it out, leading to the reveal of how Cody became an addict, is breathtaking acting on both parts.

Direction by Ruggerio stays crisp and smart, allowing the three characters to deal with each other and the situation in a real way, without relying much on preciousness or pretentiousness. Scenic design by David Gallo is effective in its sparseness, but with more than enough character to reveal the sense of place. The set moved flawlessly and magically, and was my favorite design aspect of the show. Costumes by Jess Goldstein were appropriate, and telling. Lights by John Lasiter, and Sound by Vincent Olivieri created excellent supportive atmosphere (although, I wondered if there was a reason the monologue light was rectangular, no matter whereever Turner was onstage).

High is a worthy production of a new show, with a good cast, and a star turn by Kathleen Turner. You can see it here, in St. Louis, and then, root for it on the night of The Tony Awards! What more can you ask?

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