"High" at TheaterWorks

By David A. Rosenberg

What does a first-rate director do with less than first-rate material? Obvious answer: He tries to bring the material up to his level. And so it is with Rob Ruggiero who directs Matthew Lombardo’s “High,” having its world premiere at TheaterWorks in Hartford, as if it were the new “Equus,” which it resembles in outline though not in substance. Such is Ruggiero’s skill that the audience is held spellbound anyway.

As in Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” a crime has been committed by a young man. A mental expert (there a male psychiatrist, here a female counselor) is assigned to ferret out the whys of what the young man may have done and try to effect a cure. In “Equus,” the unraveling develops layer upon layer, makes the young man’s and the expert’s stories dependent on one another and brings motivations to light in ways both dramatic and revelatory. In “High,” the revelations are foregone and the only real surprise – indeed, the only real emotion – comes out of a hitherto undisclosed family relationship.

Cody Randall is a 19-year-old druggie, runaway, hustler – you name it. With an absentee father and a drugged-out whore of a mother, no wonder he’s a suicidal mess. After the alleged crime, he’s taken to a Catholic rehab center by the seemingly objective Father Michael Delpapp who assigns him to Sister Jamison Connelly, a counselor who is herself a recovering alcoholic. (She’s given up booze but not cursing –- the evening is an earful.)

Sister Jamie, as she calls herself, has skeletons aplenty in her own closet. Besides alcohol addiction, she has traumatic memories of her own sister plus a family life that included lies and truths that were sometimes indistinguishable from one another. Her work with Cody is similarly ambiguous. Her desire is to have him accept responsibility through confessing and, in return, accept God’s miraculous forgiveness.

“Fear of the unknown,” she says, “is the ultimate rush for some people, for most; and that type of longing never goes away.” Or so we’re told. For this is a play whose dramatic arc is interrupted by straight-ahead narration and circular development, as we learn more and more not about the boy’s addictions, filled in at the beginning, but the nun’s. Whose story is this anyway? Nor is what we learn about Sister Jamison triggered by her work with Cody. The attempt to juxtapose and mesh the two addictions (really three, counting the priest’s), linked by Catholic ritual, is superficial and labored.

Playwright Lombardo, author of “Tea at Five” (about Katharine Hepburn) and “Looped” (about Tallulah Bankhead) obviously has a penchant for writing about strong-willed women bedeviled by troubled young men (Hepburn’s brother, Bankhead’s director). He also writes dialogue tinged with poetry. Both tendencies are in evidence here and given full throttle by Kathleen Turner, who’s probably tired of hearing herself characterized as “sultry.”

Yet so she is. Turner, who was magnificent in a Broadway revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” here uses her expressive face -- skeptical eyes, upraised eyebrows, mewing lips – to limn a character whose self-doubts are kept at bay with superhuman effort. Lashing out one minute, empathetic the next, she stalks the stage like a lioness, using her body as a thing both voluptuous and wounded and tearing into the dialogue as if she were, indeed, one of God’s messengers. It’s a fierce, commanding performance.

As Cody, Evan Jonigkeit doesn’t shy from the character’s basic unlikability. Aggressive to the point of violence, he’s every bit the guy you’d cross the street to avoid. The author doesn’t make it easy for him, extending no pity, no sudden beatifying resurrection and Jonigkeit doesn’t betray that by seeking sympathy.

As Father Michael, Michael Berresse is at once authoritarian and secretive, covering his own insecurities with a matter-of-fact air. It’s not an easy balance to maintain but pays off when we learn his motivations, even though the revelations are unsurprising and portentous. (And why is he wearing a wedding ring?)

Ruggiero directs with his usual flair for suggesting that more of what we observe lies beneath the surface. His fluid staging creates an atmosphere wrought with mysteries both earthbound and cosmic. Helped by David Gallo’s allusive set and John Lasiter’s lighting, Ruggiero places the action in a twilight world hovering between life and death, where merely surviving is the great challenge.

“High” is scheduled for further productions in Cincinnati and St Louis before a hoped-for move to Broadway. There’s still time to get out of the muddle.


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