Saturday, November 6, 2010

High

We don’t get many shows in St. Louis that are en route to New York, so when we do we feel flattered.  Which probably isn’t the right way to feel.  After all, if they are trying out a show before it hits New York what they really need is honest criticism.

On Thursday night I saw High at The Rep, written by Matthew Lombardo and directed by Rob Ruggiero and starring Kathleen Turner. It is supposedly on its way to New York.  If it makes it there I don’t think it will last.  Not because of the actors but because of the script.

A three character show, Turner plays Sister Jamison Connelly, a Catholic nun who works at a rehab center run by the Catholic Church.  Michael Beresse plays Father Michael Delpapp, the priest who is in charge of the facility and Evan Jonigkeit plays Cody Randall, a junkie serving a 30 day court ordered stay at the facility with whom Sister Connelly must work.

Matthew Lombardo is, by his own admission, a recovering drug addict.  The role of the drug addict is well written and Jonigkeit played it perfectly.  It is hard to like Cody while at the same time it is easy to see how easy it would be to enable him in his behavior.

Lombardo was also, by his own admission, born Catholic.  So was I. And in the notes for the performance he attributes his own “coming clean'” moment to a spiritual awakening when he hit rock bottom and asked God for help.    According to Lombardo, he was delivered to a nearby hospital where he began treatment. 

Not, you notice, a Catholic rehab center.  He should have stuck with what he knew.

I see the plays at The Rep in the last week of performance.  By the time I see them they have either jelled or not jelled.  My cousin (who was also raised Catholic and is a psychologist) saw this play at the beginning of the run.  I saw her after she had seen it and I asked her how she liked it.  She said she didn’t want to ruin the plot for me so she wouldn’t go into that, but she thought the play itself (the script) needed significant work before it went to New York.   Then she remarked that, despite growing up Catholic, it didn’t seem as if the writer had ever met any “real” Catholics who worked in places like these.

I have to agree with her.  I thought the script was weak.  The drug addict was the best drawn character and, as I said, Jonigkeit played him perfectly.  But the nun and the priest characters seemed forced.  I think Turner and Beresse did as well as they could with what they were given, it wasn’t their fault.  But the way the characters were written seemed outdated.  And there were so many things that he seemed to have gotten wrong.

For instance, the priest is dressed throughout most of the performance in his clerical blacks (with roman collar).  But this seems to be a facility at which he lives and we never see him in “street” clothes.  Priests do wear them at times, you know.  And at one point in the performance he gets dressed in vestments that are used only when saying mass.  There is no indication in the script that they have moved into a sacristy (the part of the church where the priest robes) or that he is preparing to say mass.  He just brings them into the room that, up until that point in the performance, has been the nun’s office, and puts them on as he talks to her.  Huh?  Why?

At one point Sister Connelly talks about how she doesn’t wear traditional nun garb with a rosary around her neck.  It isn’t against the rules to wear a rosary around your neck but most Catholics in the United States don’t.   Back in the day when nuns did dress in habits, their rosaries were usually hanging from their waists from where they could easily be detached and used in prayer.

These are things that could easily be fixed.  A bigger problem was the dialog. Lombardo tried to show that “nuns are people too” by having Sr. Connelly swear a blue streak.  But in every other way she talked as if she were out of a 1950’s movie about nuns.  Think Rosalind Russell in The Trouble with Angels.   She was unlike any nun I’ve ever met in the last 20 years.  And I’ve met a lot of nuns in my life.  A LOT of nuns. 

What it came down to was this:  it wasn’t at all clear why this character needed to be a nun.  The only reason she needed to be a nun was seemingly because she worked in a Catholic rehab center where a priest was in charge.  Having her be a nun must have seemed a good way to increase the tension when she stood up to the priest.  I have news for Lombardo:  lots of lay people work in facilities run by priests.  And there’s plenty of tension when they stand up to them.

Oh, and they don’t stand up to them by going around their backs to the archbishop about a problem that is no more than a run-of-the-mill disagreement.  They don’t even go to the archbishop for BIG disagreements.  Why?  It would be like going to the Governor because you disagreed with your boss who was the head of the highway department.  It just isn’t done. 

I can see why Lombardo wanted to have the priest character.  He was playing with stereotypes and preconceptions by making the audience have to consider their current conceptions about why a priest would be interested in helping a teenage homosexual prostitute drug addict.  The priest sex abuse scandal is always there in the background and it is somewhat useful for Lombardo’s purposes in obscuring some of what he wants to save for the end.  But there was no reason that the actual therapist had to be a nun.  It just doesn’t work and he should change that.

But finally, and most problematically, the story of the drug addict is just not that shocking.   It seemed pretty run-of-the mill to me.  Which would be fine EXCEPT that his story is supposed to shock Sister Connelly intensely. So intensely that it makes her reveal to the audience something terrible that happened in her past.

Give me a break.  Nuns don’t exist in vacuums.  They don’t get to be counselors at a rehab center because some mother superior sends them there.  They have to go to school these days.  They do internships.  They read case studies.  They are exactly like lay people who work at drug rehab centers. 

Even if this kid were her first homosexual, prostitute drug addict, there was nothing about his background or anything he did that should have shocked her.  Heck, it wouldn’t have shocked anyone who ever watched The Wire.  It certainly didn’t shock me.

And that, above all, was the fatal flaw in the script that I’m not sure can be fixed.