The Killing of Sister George -- A Naughty Comedy
By Roz Friedman
Long Wharf is inaugurating its newly-renovated theater, now called the Clair Tow Stage/C. Newton Schenck III Mainstage Theater, with a dreadful production of a really unpleasant play, The Killing of Sister George. I can't imagine what drew Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, Adapter Jeffrey Hatcher, and Kathleen Turner, the director and star, to this play, which was written in 1964 by Frank Marcus, a Brit from Europe. One of the major themes centers on lesbianism, but it is presented so hatefully, it certainly would set back the issue of same-sex marriage for years.
I am old enough to remember listening to and loving radio soap opera. A good part of this plot revolves around the world of soap opera in London. Kathleen Turner is the monstrous diva, June Buckridge, who is beloved by listeners for her role in the radio show “The Applehursts” as Sister George, a kind and wonderful nurse. Behind the scenes June Buckridge shares a “chintzy” flat (Allen Moyer/John Lasiter) with a pretty blond, Alice “Childie” McNaught, played by Clea Alsip. This poor girl writes poetry, cuddles her favorite doll as if is a real baby, and bakes and makes tea for Buckridge, who feels that is “pansy” work. The two are in a destructive and disgusting relationship. June Buckridge abuses “Childie,” by making her eat her cigar butt and scrape to her on the floor. There's not one stitch of affection or love expressed from June to the “Childie.” On the other hand, “Childie” is very sensitive to June's moods.
Things come to a head when Mrs. Mercy from the BBC, who has a program dealing with psychology, visits and tells June that her drunken attack on two nuns must be taken care of with an apology and a donation; She is in danger of losing her job, which she finally does in a terrible turn of events. Betsy Aidem gives a well-defined, clear and crisp performance as this woman in charge. Alsip plays the innocent “Childie” with a good edge. Ironically, it is Kathleen Turner who, with her deep, plummy voice, cannot be heard well. So there are elements of the plot that remain a mystery. Also, her direction is puzzling. In many scenes, the actors are turned away from the audience for stretches of time, talking amongst themselves. Jane Greenwood, usually a wonderful costumer, has dressed June in a most unattractive outfit: a pale olive sweater set and checked skirt.
The fourth woman in this play, which is supposed to be a comedy, but is neither funny nor very naughty, is Madame Xenia, a spiritualist, a very popular endeavor in England. The playwright does his best to debunk her machinations and Olga Merediz does her best with this ditzy role.
Donations have a way of changing things. About 14 years ago, my husband and I attended the dedication of a newly renovated Green Room in memory of the then Artistic Director Arvin Brown's wife, Joyce Ebert, who acted in hundreds of production there and had died of cancer. Now, the Green Room will be named in honor of stage manager and costume designer Cynthia Kellogg Barrington, who left some of her estate to Long Wharf.
As for the renovation: The seats are a lot more comfortable.
The Killing of Sister George at Long Wharf will play through December 30.
(This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts radio.)