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Clint Holmes

High

Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit give strong performances in Matthew Lombardo's drama about a nun trying to counsel a young drug addict.

By New York City
Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High
(© Joan Marcus)
Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High
(© Joan Marcus)
It's easy to see why Kathleen Turner, with her aged-whiskey voice and gift for playing pugnacious, would be drawn to the role of Sister Jamison Connelly, the tough-talking, fiercely engaged drug counselor at the center of Matthew Lombardo's new play High, now at Broadway Booth's Theatre after a trio of successful regional runs. 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 Lombardo's taut script and Rob Ruggiero's focused direction.

Lombardo, the author of Tea at Five and Looped, has made no secret of 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 in a Catholic facility 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 (Stephen Kunken), the post-Vatican-II priest-in-shirtsleeves who finagled the transfer, doesn't show his cards to Sister Connellly right away, but 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 garb of contemporary nunhood but hasn't left behind the colorful language of the streets -- try to reach someone who has zero desire to be saved. Using shock tactics (to often hilarious effect) to extract Cody's rather-too-predictable history, Jamie cuffs and corrects the surly pup, who -- covered with sores and bruises -- lurks about as if he wished he could just vanish into the woodwork. Cody is a different animal once he manages to score drugs, but this street-savvy nun is a match for him then as well.

Between scenes, Connelly addresses the audience directly via a series of monologues, and through them we get to know what makes her tick. Her insightful superior accuses her of pride when she resists taking the case. However, there is a real question whether she can 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. If you're among those who view religion itself as a senseless addiction, expect to be alienated and perplexed -- perhaps the very effect that Lombardo intended. But most will agree that High is a worthwhile exploration of the peculiar paths taken by humans in dire need of something -- maybe anything -- on which to pin their faith.


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