Sister Jamison Connelly (Kathleen Turner) is a blunt, hard-boiled nun with a past. She’s a hard case with a mouth like a longshoreman and an argumentative, no-nonsense manner.
She meets her match in Cory Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), a young drug addict so far gone it’s hard to imagine his recovery. Nevertheless, he’s assigned to her by Father Michael Delpapp (Michael Berresse), who manages a minimum security rehab facility. She objects that Cory’s case is beyond her expertise and the program of treatment normally offered, but the priest insists.
That’s the set-up for Matthew Lombardo’s new play, High, the season opener for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. It’s a harsh portrait of contemporary addiction, and this production is not for the faint of heart: The language is crude, the characters’ confessional stories are horrific and their actions are tough to accept.
Audiences will turn out to see movie star Turner, and she captures her character’s troubled past and ongoing demons.
Alas, her smooth-as-silk voice is thick, and her delivery of lines feels too deliberate, although her sense of comic timing is impeccable. (Lombardo’s script affords many quick comebacks that relieve the oppressive horror.)
As the addict, Randall turns in the most impressive performance — distant and aloof at first, then wounded and lost as his veneer is demolished by Sr. Jamie’s unrelenting probing of his past and her efforts to show him how faith offers redemption. But the title’s many meanings — flying, freedom, escape, reduced responsibility — suggest that High’s story is as much hers as his.
High is a work in progress, possibly on its way to Broadway. David Gallo’s set is largely a black void (with an immense star-field backdrop), mostly black and white, although the story is really about the grey fog between such stark oppositions. (Read my recent interview with Gallo here.)
The plot has too many forced moments, and the dynamic between the priest and the nun seems unlikely.
High suggests that faith and redemption can confront troubling contemporary issues, but the outcome feels incomplete and contradictory. Sr. Jamie’s yearning for personal escape suggests that answers still await.
HIGH continues at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through Oct. 2. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.