Kathleen Turner – up and down in High

High 1

Kathleen Turner (left) is Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and drug rehabilitation counselor working with a 19-year-old addict played by Evan Jonigkeit in the drama High by Matthew Lombardo, part of the SHN season at the Curran Theatre. Below: Turner breaks the fourth wall. Photos courtesy of SHN

Cringe No. 1 came early in Matthew Lombardo’s unsustained High at the Curran Theatre. Kathleen Turner was standing center stage in character as Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and drug rehab counselor. That great Turner voice, all basso notes and gravel, sounded a little like it was under water. But there she was, standing in front of a backdrop filled with stars telling us about a younger sister named Theresa and the bedtime story she liked so much about a boy who liked to fly. Why does the little sister like the story so much, the older sister queries in her memory. “Because I want to be high.”

That was actually Cringe No. 1 and Cringe No. 2. Not having read or experienced this play in any way before, I immediately knew two things: the fate of little sister Theresa would not be a good one. And that heavily intoned word, “high” – oh, look, dear, it’s the title of the play and must be important – would probably be the last word of the play as well. Yup. And yup.

High is so well intentioned in its need to display the torment of addiction and the constant conflict of faith, and the three actors here are so game that it’s a shame the play comes off as such melodramatic trash. Director Rob Ruggiero never lets the production become anything more than a rehash of the oft-told rehab story.

You have to give it to Turner, though. Her late-’70s training in the NBC soap “The Doctors” (as Nola Aldrich – it was, along with “Days of Our Lives,” one of the soaps my mom and I would watch during summer vacation) puts her quite at ease here playing a cussing nun who was homeless for three years as a result of her alcohol addiction. She gets the rhythms of this pulpy material. Of course Sister Jamie, as she’s called, drops f-bombs and gets regular laughs from saying “tough shit” too many times. Apparently nuns aren’t interesting unless they’re prim monsters (as in Doubt), lounge singers (as in Sister Act), adorable governesses (as in The Sound of Music) or smack talkers.

High 2

If this gig provides none of the challenges of Turner’s last role as Martha opposite Bill Irwin’s George in an extraordinary Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at least she’s fun to watch, even if she’s never quite believable as a questioning nun in recovery. She has rapport with the audience, which is a good thing, because she breaks through that fourth wall a few too many times. And her co-stars, Tim Altmeyer as a priest with secrets and Evan Jonigkeit as a 19-year-old crystal meth addict, do what they can to lend theatrical weight to what is essentially a TV movie we’ve all seen before (and seen better).

Even David Gallo minimizes the impact of the story with his all-white set dominated by two doorways that would be more appropriate to sketch comedy or some sort of zany farce. The set comes across as cheap and with no weight of reality. The same could be said of the play itself.

Some of the interactions between Turner and Jonigkeit generate some electricity, but their story is so clogged with brutality and horror that we get very little sense of them as human beings outside their tragedy-filled pasts. And then Lombardo throws in a lot of Catholicism and God talk to confound the proceedings further by trying to weave faith into the story of addiction, which could be interesting in a story that is not this particular story.

In the program, playwright Lombardo writes about his own fairly recent experience with drug addiction, and those two pages are far more powerful and compelling than anything he puts on stage in High.


[bonus interview]
I talked to Kathleen Turner about her role in the development of High and its ignominious failure on Broadway.
Read the story here.



Matthew Lombardo’s High closes March 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $100 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.