Kathleen Turner deserves a measure of thanks for dusting off Frank Marcus's provocative and sporadically hilarious 1964 dramedy The Killing of Sister George, about a much-beloved BBC radio star, who, by day portrays hearty nurse on a sappy rural soap opera, and by night turns into a gin-swilling cigar-smoking butch.
It's easy to see why the juicy title role would appeal to Turner, who also directs the production, and why Long Wharf Theatre would welcome Turner's marquee appeal. She does a fine, faithful job directing a script tweaked, perhaps over-reductively, by prolific playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. However, something is missing from Turner's portrayal of the monstrously two-faced George. She rampages effectively, her now basso voice and breathless, staccato delivery sometimes obscuring the text, but George's nastiness seems to come out of left field, and we rarely catch a glimpse of the wounded core.
George (who has all but given up her civilian name, June Buckridge) cohabits with her "secretary", the much younger Alice "Childie" McNaught, a self-styled Mod dolly played, appealingly by Clea Alsip. Their butch-femme juxtaposition is visually on display in a sitting room--well-conceived by Allen Moyer--where Childie's doll collection sits in silent protest opposite George's award-crammed étagère.
Marcus wastes no time establishing the ground rules of the relationship: within minutes, George orders Childie to eat her discarded cigar stub as penance for some act of perceived insubordination. The shocker in this envelope-pushing play, which clearly benefited from precedents set by Orton and Albee, is not so much the same-sex pairing as its overpowering sadomasochistic dynamic.
To this production's detriment, the sexual charge appears vestigial at most. There ought to be a sense of teasing foreplay, for instance, when George twits the prepubescent-appearing Childie for being her "flatmate in more senses than one." George surely has uses for the young, attractive Childie beyond that of whipping boy. What she offers Childie in return remains a mystery here. It's not until Mrs. Mercy Croft, George's painstakingly proper supervisor at the BBC (played with superb timing and control by Betsy Aidem), starts giving Childie the glad eye that we get the slightest scintilla of sexual heat.
Olga Merediz, as the neighborhood clairvoyant, Madame Xenia, has some fun scenes, which she carries off with panache.
As a whole though, the production is bogged down by Turner's failure to connect with her character. Crouched in a fighter's stance, pugilistically forging ahead, she achieves neither the bracing grandeur of George's imperiousness nor the underlying pathos of her need to command respect at all costs.