BLUNT-FORCE TRAUMA Matthew Lombardo’s play is not nearly as good as Kathleen Turner’s performance.
The most shocking thing about High (at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through December 11) is not that Kathleen Turner plays a nun. Sister Jamison Connelly is, after all, as salty as a seaside clam shack. The surprise is that the broad-shouldered, whiskey-voiced star believes as fervently in Matthew Lombardo's needlessly lurid, mostly implausible play as Sister Jamie does in God. The theater piece, which earlier this year survived its Broadway opening by only a week, was tailored to Turner, and she has been with it from its Hartford TheaterWorks beginning, through successful gigs in Cincinnati and St. Louis, and on to Broadway. Now she's the powerful rocket that launches the national tour of Rob Ruggiero's production. And the actress gives a gruff, nuanced performance as a manly woman of the cloth whose tough love extends from the Deity to the desperate young man forced into her charge. Unfortunately, High, though it neatly mines the multiple meanings of its title, proves as unsalvageable as he does.
A recovering alcoholic and unrepentant potty mouth, Sister Jamie works as a rehabilitation counselor at a church-run residential rehab facility. And her take-no-prisoners approach has produced good results — until Father Michael Delpapp, her immediate superior (with a personal agenda of his own), slips her a real tough nut in 19-year-old Cody Randall, an anguished, angry young crank-head with no desire to clean up his act. He's only in treatment because the court decided he needed a new direction after he woke up in a sea of needles next to a dead boy. It will not surprise you to learn that, in the course of two oft-over-the-top hours, we hear not only Cody's sad backstory but also Sister Jamie's — which explains not only her terse, on-and-off-the-wagon struggle with demons but also her desperate need for the existence of God (and His chief carrot and corollary, forgiveness).
Lombardo, too, presents an interesting backstory. The playwright is also the author of Tea at Five, a one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn in which Star Trek vet Kate Mulgrew scored a success, and Looped, a Broadway flop that starred Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead (a role Turner turned down, having already played the camp icon in Tallulah). A former Catholic altar boy, Lombardo lived the respectable dramatist's life until his mid-30s, when an inadvisable love affair led to a crystal meth addiction that by the time he got sober had turned him into a train wreck. If only Lombardo had told his own story rather than transmogrifying it into this spicy, deliberately sensationalist melodrama. I mean, can there be any reason for an ostensibly gay, wasted young hustler to strip naked and sexually threaten a middle-aged, plain-clothes nun other than to sell tickets — and to demonstrate that Sister Jamie, like most of the sensuously formidable characters in Turner's arsenal, could deck or devour him?