New 'Sister George' Improved But Problems Remain

 

By FRANK RIZZO

 

The show: "The Killing of Sister George" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre.

 

First impressions: A radio soap opera actress learns that her character is about to be done in for the sake of ratings. Kathleen Turner gets some comic mileage with her basso delivery as salty June, less so as her beloved fictional character of a no-nonsense nurse, Sister George, who tends to the folks in the rural town of "Applehurst."

 

The lesbian relationships at the center of the play aren't scandalous today, the flaws of Frank Marcus' original clunky and dated mid-'60s Brit script remain -- though considerably improved by Jeffrey Hatcher's tightened and re-focused adaptation that at least gives the second act some punch with plot twists and an intensified psycho-sexual power dynamic.

 

But just as the killing of Sister George was supposed to re-invigorate a sagging soap opera done in by changing times, so it goes with the occasionally engaging but ultimately disappointing revised revival, here described as "a naughty comedy."

 

So a miss? Not entirely. It's always fun to watch Turner deliver withering looks even if the lines aren't so stellar. And the actress vividly inhabits the character's dominant personality in walk, talk and attitude while strategically allowing glimpses of vulnerability.

 

But you get the impression during the first half of the play that it's all riding on Turner's considerable presence, not dissimilar to the heavy lifting she did on "High" (which premiered at Hartford's TheaterWorks before it ended briefly on Broadway).

 

But charisma only goes so far and Turner's effort to make sense of the alcoholic mess that is June and the relationship she has with her lover is as vague as her accent. It's a problem that Hatcher's revision tries but doesn't quite solve -- and neither does Turner in her solid-but-hardly-illuminating direction.

 

She also misses the humor in the juxtaposition of June's raging bull personality and Sister George's more empathetic one. Her June and George sound similar, which undercuts the idea of role playing that the leading characters engage in to get what they want in life.

 

What's the play about? It's a soap opera about a soap opera, with characters in extreme situations, mixed with shocking tidbits, jumping-the-shark flourishes and a turn of fortune or two. June Buckridge lives in a modest London flat with her younger and submissive lover Alice (Clea Alsip), who is also called "Childie," reflecting her sometimes child-like demeanor and more-than-a-little-fondness for dolls.

 

The play begins when June suspects that her character will be eliminated by the BBC, a feeling that is intensified with the arrival of the show's producer Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem) ostensibly to reprimand June for past drunken behavior where she traumatized a pair of novice nuns in a taxi. But June fears that her job is in jeopardy at the same time she feels her seven-year relationship with her much younger lover is on the rocks, too. And then there's the eccentric fortune-teller neighbor, Madame Xenia (Olga Merediz) who drops by.

 

Say what? It's a convention of the time in comedy writing to include a nutty neighbor (think "Barefoot in the Park") to add, apropos of nothing, some zing to the proceedings, not to mention filling in some exposition or acting as a narrative-enabler. Ms. Merediz enlivens her character with a sharp flourish, even if you wonder what play she wandered in from.

 


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