No Kick to This High

The last time SHN brought screen icon Kathleen Turner to the Bay Area, in 2007, she was costarring with Bill Irwin in a superb production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, straight from Broadway. Turner’s current SHN show at the Curran Theatre, High, is also fresh from Broadway, but the difference is that this one did very poorly there last April, opening on a Tuesday and closing by that Sunday. But the producers must figure there’s life in the old dog yet, or at least that Turner’s star wattage would be able to sustain it on tour. The current Curran run is only five days, but at least this time it was planned that way, clearing out just in time to bring in Jonathan Pryce in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker next week.

Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High. Photo courtesy of SHN.

High is written by Matthew Lombardo, who also wrote Tea at Five, the one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn that’s been a vehicle for Star Trek: Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew and passed through Marines Memorial Theatre a few years back. This one’s a more personal story for Lombardo, as it’s all about hardcore drug addiction and recovery or lack thereof. Lombardo tells his own story about having been a junkie in a note in the playbill, and it’s sobering to say the least, although nowhere near as grotesque as the stories told in the play.

It may surprise anyone who’s seen to ads to learn that High is not a solo show. It costars fellow original cast member Evan Jonigkeit as young addict Cody and Broadway understudy Tim Altmeyer as priest Father Michael. Turner plays Sister Jamie, a plainclothes nun who works as a counselor in a Catholic drug rehab center. Jamie couldn’t be farther from the by-the-book Sister Aloysius in Doubt. She cusses a lot, is a recovering alcoholic herself, and generally doesn’t seem to give a crap about anyone. When Cody comes into their care—a teenage gay junkie hustler found after an overdose alongside his dead 14-year-old lover—she tells her supervisor, father Michael, that they should turn him away. He’s not the kind of good Catholic with a slight pill or drinking problem that they cater to. But Father Michael insists that they take him and that Jamie be the one to treat him, and his unwillingness to hear her objections (even the most basic one, that Cody has to want to get better before he can get better) is one of the initially puzzling subplots of the play. Can Cody get off the drugs and turn on to that Jesus high instead?  Well, I guess we’ll see.

Turner has had a public battle with alcoholism herself, so the fact that she followed her acclaimed turn as the raging drunkard Martha in Virginia Woolf with the role of a drug counselor with an aching weakness for the sauce is interesting. Her performance as Sister Jamie is, alas, problematic. Turner seems badly hampered by shortness of breath that slows down her delivery considerably and segments it into bite-size chunks that sound a bit robotic, particularly in the long stretches of monologue that she’s saddled with. Her perpetual windedness also has the effect of making her always husky voice sound muffled and slurred, which makes it hard to tell sometimes if Sister Jamie has had a relapse.

Turner does better in scenes with other people, where her dialogue is peppered with wisecracks that sound a lot more clever than they actually are, partly because of the emphasis she puts on them and partly because her celebrity and a receptive audience conspire to turn anything that sounds vaguely like a punchline into a laugh riot. Consequently, these zingers don’t look like much of anything on the page: “You call me lady one more like and I will make you cry,” f’rinstance, or, “I cuss. A lot.” And whenever she cusses, all the better.

This is not a comedy, however. Far from it. It’s a grueling series of confrontations with Cody in counseling sessions, where she’s such a hardass and he’s so surly and confrontational that there’s not much danger of developing a fondness for either of them. We’ll soon hear horror stories from their youth that make us understand how each of them got to be this way, which makes it easy to sympathize with their younger selves while still not caring a whit for the people they’ve become. That makes it hard to have much investment in the question of whether Sister Jamie will manage to save Cody’s life or her own soul or whatever.

Jonigkeit is very effective at making Cody an unbearable little shit, but he’s also good at conveying the hurt and desperation underneath his defiant folderol. Altmeyer is filled with charm in his initial scene, when Father Michael is convincing Jamie to take Cody on, but as the priest becomes more stubborn and evasive, it becomes increasingly hard to believe in his as a character. He becomes more grounded toward the end, just in time to lend the heavy-handed conclusion some gravitas, but it’s a very mixed bag with him for the great yawning middle of the play.

Every time Turner’s Jamie is left alone in the room, she launches into a monologue about her wild years. There is eventually a point to these stories, and when it arrives it’s very effective, but unfortunately that means that for the first two-thirds of the play (and, for that matter, the remainder of the play after that very effective moment) they seem completely pointless, an irritating encumbrance. Lombardo’s dialogue isn’t stellar, but at least it has a rhythm to it and gives the tough nun a chance to fire off some quips. But the direct-address passages are a drag, filled with a lot of generic observations about how life is made up of truth and lies, so it comes as a shock when her anecdotes about raiding her dad’s liquor cabinet and her attraction to bad boys suddenly become deeply relevant to our understanding of her character (such as it is). Oh, and she tells that same damn fable about the scorpion and the frog that we’ve all heard countless times, including in so many other plays, TV shows, and movies (Mr. Arkadin, The Crying Game, Natural Born Killers, Skin Deep, Drive, Star Trek: Voyager, CSI, etc., etc., etc.) that it makes me groan whenever a character starts telling that story. Get some new material already, Aesop.

The show is directed by Rob Ruggiero, senior artistic associate at Hartford, Connecticut’s TheaterWorks (not to be confused with our own TheatreWorks in Palo Alto), where the play premiered in 2010. (The Connecticut company is currently best known for the recent flap over casting white actors as Puerto Rican characters in The Motherfucker in the Hat.) Ruggiero seems to want to make the play a lot more gripping than it actually is, with some startling suspense music from sound designer Vincent Olivieri for scenes you might not otherwise realize are supposed to be suspenseful. The problem is that, while there’s some power to the tales of the terrible things that have happened in the past, it’s hard to get caught up in the drama of what’s happening in the present, even when what’s going on involves a whole lot of hollering and running around and who knows what-all. Given some of the desperate behavior (including some abrupt nudity) on display in High, it’s impressive in a way that it packs so little impact.

Through March 25
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #31 of 2012, attended March 22.

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