High: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Persuasive performances from Kathleen Turner and newcomer Evan Jonigkeit make the best possible arguments for a contrived play.

Newcomer Evan Jonigkeit gives a persuasive performance in Matthew Lombardo’s contrived play.

NEW YORK – When Kathleen Turner first set movie screens ablaze in Body Heat, few can have predicted that 30 years later, she would be bringing fierce conviction to the role of a nun. What makes this less of a stretch, however, is that the sister in question is a recovering alcoholic with a dark past. She swears like a longshoreman and is as comfortable with bruising sarcasm as she is with prayer.

Turner’s trenchant performance, and that of gifted newcomer Evan Jonigkeit, elevate Matthew Lombardo’s three-character drama, High, above the level of its tritely sensational movie-of-the-week plotting and boilerplate construction. It’s more convincing as an actor’s vehicle than as a play, an imbalance that Rob Ruggiero’s pedestrian, minimally designed production fails to correct.

Starting at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT, last summer, Turner has stuck with the production through three regional engagements, molding the contours of Sister Jamison Connelly into a snug fit. This is a woman who has given herself to God’s work, but her blunt, straight-shooting style is unrelated to the old-guard, habit-wearing disciplinarian of Doubt, for example.

Early on, Sister Jamison establishes her rigorous rules: She accepts no excuses or apologies for situations that can be prevented. Having lived on the streets for 3½ years before hitting rock bottom and returning to the Catholic faith of her childhood, she continues to wrestle with her own demons even as she attempts to liberate the addicts in her charge from theirs.

The challenge that tests her equilibrium in High is Cody Randall (Jonigkeit). The 19-year-old junkie hustler was found in a motel room after a botched suicide attempt, alongside the dead body of a 14-year-old boy. While the murky details of this event emerge gradually, Sister Jamison’s supervisor, Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken), has somehow convinced legal authorities to entrust the boy to his institution’s care.

The priest’s own reasons for keeping Cody safe outweigh Sister Jamison’s objections to taking on such a volatile case, and her certainty that the boy has no interest in staying clean.

In a preface to the play, Lombardo recounts the turning point in his own drug-binging past, and the “spiritual awakening” that heralded his sobriety. That experience lends authenticity to the insights into getting high, the psychology of avoidance and self-destruction, and the workings of recovery programs. Still, the playwright overdoses on Cody’s lurid back-story, to the point where you question how the kid ever made it to 19.

It’s to Jonigkeit’s credit that the character remains raw and real in an unguarded performance that ranges from snarling attitude to animalistic cunning, from seductive flirtation to pathetic pleading. In a scene in which Cody strips naked on a meth high and sexually taunts Sister Jamison, Lombardo indulges a taste for overwrought theatrical effect. But the dynamic between these two main characters remains tense and compelling, despite the play’s contrivances.

Kunken’s role is weakly conceived, with too much unexplored history and too many holes in the logic of his interactions with Cody.

The detours into Sister Jamison’s troubled past are navigated via prosaic monologues that punctuate the action, delivered against a starry night sky. But with her basso growl, world-weary intelligence and a flair for self-dramatization that’s as much a part of the nun’s DNA as the actor’s, Turner stitches these recollections into a cohesive character portrait.

Lombardo and Ruggiero were on Broadway last season with the short-lived Tallulah Bankhead bio-play Looped, which starred Valerie Harper. The playwright clearly is drawn to boozy larger-than-life women, and there’s an echo of Bankhead’s withering drawl as Sister Jamison shoots down Cody’s hasty assessment of her, saying, “Ohhh, little boy, little boy.” But beneath all the tough talk and dented armor, Turner exposes the character’s deep well of compassion and the festering wounds of her self-reproach. Too bad the writing isn’t sufficiently nuanced to make her calvary more affecting.

Venue: Booth Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Kathleen Turner, Stephen Kunken, Evan Jonigkeit
Playwright: Matthew Lombardo
Director: Rob Ruggiero
Set designer: David Gallo
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: John Lasiter
Sound designer/music: Vincent Olivieri
Presented by Leonard Soloway, Chase Mishkin, Terry Schnuck, Ann Cady Scott, Timothy J. Hampton, James and Catherine Berges, Craig Schnuck, Barbara and Buddy Freitag, Lauren Class Schneider, David Mirvish, Gene Fisch Jr./Stu Sternbach, Jacki Barlia Florin/Michael A. Alden and Lizabeth Zindel, Shubert Organization, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis