High May Get You Down -- But it’s a Moving Performance

By Amy J. Barry

Don’t let High—the simple one syllable title of the play premiering at Hartford’s Theater Works fool you. Written by Matthew Lombardo—who recently made his Broadway debut with Looped≈—directed by Rob Ruggiero, and starring Kathleen Turner, High is a multi-faceted, dead serious drama with a mysterious twist, and moments of comic relief. Its title represents the struggle between the easy relief of a drug-induced high and the harder quest for salvation through a higher power.
Lombardo, as he describes himself in Coming Clean—A Note From the Playwright has been there, done that, and survived to tell the harrowing tale. His character Cody Randall, a male prostitute and junkie, played by Evan Jonigkeit, isn’t so lucky. But if this was a happily-ever-after tale of sin and redemption—it would be predictable and preachy—and it’s far from being either.
Sister Connelly is not a subservient nun, not by a long shot, and it would probably be hard to imagine Turner, of both film and Broadway fame, in such a role as her voice and presence is so strong and distinct. A foul-mouthed tough cookie, donning regular street clothes, the sister is a recovering alcoholic working at a church-sponsored rehab center where the priest, Father Michael Delpapp, played by Michael Berresse, coerces her into sponsoring the 19-year-old Cody, who has nowhere else to turn—the next stop being lock-up.
Sister Jamie, as Father Michael refers to her, interacts separately with the middle-aged priest and the young client. Her relationships with each are confrontational and button pushing for different reasons. Everyone is hiding something big and beyond his or her ability to heal and move on.
Delpapp is a bit wooden in his role, but then, he is playing a distant and angry man who spouts religious platitudes by rote and with little conviction. We learn much more about Father Michael toward the end of the play, which explains more, but still not enough for us to fully understand his motivations.
Sister Jamie, on the other hand, is continuingly revealing new things about herself as the play unfolds, and Turner keeps the intensity of her character turned up high throughout—her hardboiled exterior and her vulnerable interior that she cannot help but finally reveal to Cody, as much as she tries to act as though she’s untouchable.
Jonigkeit plays Cody with heart-wrenching believability. Thin and pale and covered in sores from shooting up, he walks the fine line of being simultaneously tough and street smart, fragile and naïve.
Sister Jamie and Cody have a lot more in common than is first apparent. They have both been victims, and as a result, unknowing victimizers. Evil forces beyond their control have shaped both their lives. They’ve both lost their innocence unnaturally young. They’ve both been to the bottom and are struggling to get back up to the surface and beyond.
Set designer David Gallo’s simple white walls and doors that fluidly move in and out against a star-studded night sky delineate spaces that act as a metaphor to both bring the characters together and create the walls that divide them.
Religion is presented in all of its manifestations. It is depicted as one-dimensional, unquestionable—just another addiction for Cody to add to his long list—and also as a more abstract, mysterious spirituality, as meaningful and beautiful as the universe itself.
“I need to believe people can and do change and that God offers forgiveness,” Sister Jamie says, as though trying to convince herself.
But at what price and when does the horror of the past take a person beyond the tipping point, to a place where death offers the only relief?
These are the uncomfortable questions one is left with when the lights come up.
High has been extended through Aug. 22 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, downtown Hartford. Be advised of strong adult content and nudity. No one under 16 will be admitted. For tickets and more info, call TheaterWorks at 860-527-7838 or online www.theaterworkshartford.org <http://www.theaterworkshartford.org> .
This review appeared in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, Aug. 11-12, 2010.

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