Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High
(© Lanny Nagler)
Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High
(© Lanny Nagler)
It's easy to see why with her aged-whiskey voice and gift for playing pugnacious Kathleen Turner would be attracted to the role of Sister Jamison (Jamie) Connelly, a tough-talking, fiercely engaged drug counselor in a Catholic rehabilitation center in High, now premiering at TheaterWorks in Hartford (and due to be reprised by co-producers Cincinnati Playhouse and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis later this season).

And indeed, Turner proves to be perfectly cast as this headstrong bundle of contradictions, carting along a horrific past -- one that is slowly teased out by Matthew Lombardo's captivating, if occasionally melodramatic script.

The playwright, the author of Tea of Five and Looped, had his own eight-year meth addiction, so it's not surprising that he proves to be so well equipped to sketch the wasted inner life of Cody Randall (brilliantly played by twitchy, close-mouthed Evan Jonigkeit), a 19-year-old near-suicide -- and possible murderer -- sentenced to a month of rehab after he's found passed out beside a 14-year-old companion who did not survive the night.

How Cody was ushered from police custody into Connelly's care is something of an intentional mystery: Father Michael Delpapp (Michael Berresse), the smoothly competent priest who finagled the transfer, won't be showing his cards anytime soon. Once they're revealed, they turn out to be simultaneously worse and less damnable than we're led to believe.

The show's first act is the stronger of the two. It's fascinating to watch this tough broad -- a recovered addict who may have assumed the drab black street clothes of contemporary nunhood but who hasn't left behind the colorful language of the streets -- try to reach someone who has zero desire to be saved. In the course of extracting Cody's all-too-predictable history, she cuffs and corrects the surly pup, who -- covered with sores and bruises -- lurks about as if he wished he weren't there. He's a different animal once he manages to score drugs, but she's a match for him then as well.

Lombardo interpolates monologues -- often involving parables disguised as jokes -- between the scenes, and it is through them that we get to know what makes Sister tick. Her smug superior accuses her of pride after she resists taking the case, but there is a real question whether she can she effectively serve as a "sponsor" to someone who hasn't chosen her as such and who clearly wasn't brought up to be a believer.

Audiences are likely to be split over the developments of the second act, and if you're among those who view religion itself as a senseless addiction, expect to be alienated and perplexed. Nevertheless High is a worthwhile exploration of the peculiar paths taken by humans in dire need of something on which to pin their faith.