The most provocative idea in Matthew Lombardo’s new play High is this: Given how many people turn to religion only in their hour of need, isn’t is safe to presume that those who work within the fold of organized religion are themselves the most recalcitrant souls, capable of backsliding at a moment’s notice?
In the national tour of High (which hit the road after the Broadway run shuttered after a mere handful of performances and now plays at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis for a brief one-week run), Kathleen Turner takes the stage as Sister Jamison Connelly, a hardened, foul-mouthed, skeptical nun who throws more sass in a single scene than the entire cast of Sister Act can manage in an entire performance. Plus cussing.
As played by Turner, Sister Jamison is a pillar of intractable self-assurance, bordering on what Catholics are so quick to label as “vanity.” As a counselor in a church-run addiction treatment center, her tough but nominally fair approach to rehabilitation has given her an enviable track record of success. But Father Michael DelPapp (Tim Altmeyer) threatens to put a large kink in that record when he assigns her a new case: Cody (Evan Jonigkeit).
It doesn’t take but two scenes for the audience to realize that Cody is bad news. A sullen, addled, gay teenage prostitute who was found in flagrante delicto in a hotel room with a dead 14-year-old boy, Cody barks out his contempt for Sister Jamison, his mother, the world, and God within the first half of act one.
Though Sister Jamison protests to Father Michael that Cody’s case is far more serious than their center is equipped to deal with, that he should in fact be put into a six-month hold under state supervision, Father Michael shrugs off her requests and blackmails her into continuing on with Cody.
As is alluded to early on, Sister Jamison herself has had to claw her way back from the clutches of addiction. As a recovering alcoholic, her sad motivation for entering the convent (so to speak) becomes ever more clear as the play continues down its dark, depressing road.
High scores a few easy points once in awhile when it examines that aforementioned paradox of religious authority against pious masking. Otherwise, to be blunt, Lombardo’s play succumbs to the trap that so many other works of art attempting to deal with drug addiction fall into. Instead of peeling back the layers of what infects people with the disease, High opts for unbridled melodramatics which are no doubt meant to be ugly and revelatory but, in this setting, end up having the opposite effect. Like so many productions before it, the gloriously ruined figures reeling through their own self-destruction make them dramatically attractive and, thus, validate their state of emergency.
Complicating this infection are the two otherwise very solid performances of Turner and Jonigkeit. (Altmeyer’s got a great performance that the play unfortunately keeps shuffling off to the side.) Turner and Jonigkeit’s series of two-hander scenes are alternately entertaining and urgent, but that becomes one of the symptoms of the play’s greater problem. One comes up against Turner’s forceful star personality and marvels at her way of turning phrases, but can’t possibly accept her character’s weaknesses. Turner deftly avoids the play’s copious pitfalls, but even she can’t quite manage to make the ultimate clumsy metaphor of the play’s title work in the final scene. And Lombardo’s inability to resist putting juicy, camp-drenched one-liners in her mouth undercuts any attempt at dramatic gravitas.
Jonigkeit, on the other hand, is fiercely committed to his character’s spiral into oblivion. From a technical standpoint, it’s a brave effort, no more so than when Lombardo’s scenario forces him to get emotionally and physically naked in a particularly low point. But no matter how much sparkling Jesse Pinkman élan he gives to each defiant bark, he seems miscast for the role … or, at least, what the role should be. To wit: For someone who is supposed to be just about near death when he is sent to Sister Jamison, the strapping Cody looks like he just stepped out of a two-and-a-half-hour session at Lifetime Fitness. I know theater is about fantasy, but exactly whose fantasy is getting fulfilled when a meth addict is depicted with perfect teeth and a flawless complexion?
Still, sometimes what goes wrong in a work of art can be as compelling to contemplate as what goes right. High has enough from both category for you to consider. For ticket information, click here.