A Dreary “Sister George” at Long Wharf
By Tom Holehan
In a recent Connecticut Post interview regarding her current production of “The Killing of Sister George” at the Long Wharf Theatre, actress/director Kathleen Turner revealed that she initially held a reading of the play at the Roundabout Theatre Company in Manhattan where, according to Turner, “They decided it wasn’t their cup of tea.” This immediately begs the question: What did Roundabout know that Long Wharf didn’t?
Written in 1965 by Frank Marcus, “The Killing of Sister George” was considered hot stuff in London where it opened to great fanfare. It soon transferred to Broadway winning a Tony Award for its star, Beryl Reid, who went on to make the controversial film version in 1968. The play and film dealt frankly (for its time) with the lesbian relationship that is at the center of the play. But “Sister George,” like Mart Crowley’s “Boys in the Band,” released at the same time, are considered negative and reductive portrayals of homosexuality and the revival at Long Wharf does nothing to dissuade that notion.
The play concerns June Buckridge, an aging BBC radio soap opera star (Ms. Turner) whose character, a nurse called “Sister George,” is endangered of being “killed off.” June is enraged by the news and takes out most of her fury on her younger lover, the child-like Alice (a game Clea Alsip). When she isn’t asking Alice to kneel at her feet for forgiveness she forces the woman to eat her cigar butts. To say the least, it is not a healthy relationship. The all-female cast of characters is completed by Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem, excellent) as the radio show’s producer and Madame Xenia (Olga Merdiz), June’s psychic neighbor who looks like she just blew in from a production of “Blithe Spirit” and whose role here is pure contrivance.
Star Kathleen Turner does herself no favors as director of this misbegotten revival. In a program note she claims she engaged playwright Jeffrey Hatcher in his adaptation of Marcus’s dated script to “delve deeper into the relationship between the women at the core of the story”. On the evidence presented at Long Wharf, though, the core of this relationship is still firmly rooted in sadomasochism with lesbians portrayed as selfish, predatory women. There is little in Turner’s performance to make us understand (or care) if there ever was a romantic connection between June and Alice. With her braying indifference, wayward English accent and blurry diction, Turner has seldom been more unappealing on stage. This is a prime example of how actors can lose perspective when they direct themselves. Her cast mates, however, all fair better especially Ms. Aidem who brings crisp authority and an intriguing sexuality to her role.
Set designer Allen Moyer’s tacky 1960s London flat is spot-on for the most part save for an ill-placed floor lap that managed to upstage the actors and sabotage sight lines for at least a third of the audience. Jane Greenwood’s mod clothing for young June and tweed suits for the older women seem perfectly in tune with the period. Sound designer John Gromada also does a great job with the BBC radio interludes that give an amusing taste of June’s dreary soap opera.
Still, the play is the thing here and the play in question is not worthy of revival even with a major star and a new adaptation. “The Killing of Sister George”? The sooner, the better.
“The Killing of Sister George” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through December 23. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.