As a drug counselor in High, at the Booth Theater (the show closes tomorrow after eight performances), Kathleen Turner is able to delineate a recognizable, positive Roman Catholic nun who can’t sing or fly.  You can quarrel with a lack of subtlety or variety in Sister Jamison Connelly’s handling, but this is a performance with command and humor—the actress may remind you, in fact, of a Catholic you actually know.  The Pope might like Turner, too–coming at a time when the Vatican is trying to more fully “engage” and become more “interactive” with the Church worldwide (why wouldn’t he be intrigued by a husky-throated star helping to break down the old theater types?).  Although I see issues with the male nudity (I’m not sure if this is the right way to sell the show to this audience), he might chuckle at the abandon with which the central character uses profanity:  Catholics don’t mind the humor or the grittiness, and they get that they can be the last exit before the highway ends (they also make up the "largest single religious denomination in the United States," according to the National Council of Churches).  Recall Oscar Wilde’s “‘long and difficult path’ to the Promised Land,” written about in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper,  “a path which led him to convert to Catholicism, a religion which, as he remarked in one of his more acute and paradoxical aphorisms, was ‘for saints and sinners alone—for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.’” Turner gets a good laugh quoting St. Augustine, along similar lines: “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet!”  The problem with this play, as far as I can make out, though, is that early or late, Catholic-oriented or not, the audience isn’t given a debatable issue to contend with, for our own self-examination.  Yes, Sister Connelly does lie at one point and Father Michael Delpapp (the fine, Tony-nominated actor, Stephen Kunken) holds a secret, but the two are not in enough opposition—we’re not sure what the playwright, Matthew Lombardo, wants to detonate. 

Evan Jonigkeit will be a name on casting agents' lists from now on, if he’s not already; he comes through on a role that’s probably too big (as if Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker was being played by James Dean). Lombardo seems to want to build the next Trump towers, or vehicles, for major talent (his Tallulah Bankhead comedy, Looped, starred Valerie Harper last season). This dramatist is perfect for a television series concept—for example, a salty Catholic nun who handles drug cases—the works of writers like Sidney Sheldon and Henry Denker come to mind when comparing High because of the interest in the handling of plot points.  But for the subtlety of a one-shot play, for that poetry, for that intimacy, it’s not only about reseeing who a nun really is or can be, or about an actor taking off his clothes on the stage.  It’s more like what Colleen Dewhurst said about performing in front of the audience:  “I strip for you; you strip for me.”

© 2011 by Bob Shuman                

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