Nuns have been portrayed as righteous and wrathful, without a doubt, but few so fiercely as Kathleen Turner’s lioness of a sister in the world preem of Matthew Lombardo’s “High.” She growls, she paces, she makes a juvenile junkie and a cagey priest run for sanctuary. But some of the good sister’s tough-mindedness needs to be directed at the script if this show — set for stops at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and the Rep of St. Louis — wants to be elevated to a higher place.
Right now it’s an entertaining melodrama with some lively dialogue, powerful exchanges and juicy perfs. But as the story unfolds of a recovering alcoholic nun trying to help a 19-year-old drug-dealing homosexual, things get mired in past histories that don’t make sense. “High” could be a plea for secular therapy, but one suspects, from its talk of redemption, miracles and higher powers, that this is not the work’s intent.
Sister Jamison Connolly (Turner), a late-in-life nun, is an unorthodox counselor working in a Catholic rehab clinic who helps turn her charges around — but only if they truly seek salvation. Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit) has no interest in doing so, even though he appears to be at rock bottom, especially after the mysterious death of a 14-year-old boy who OD’d in Cody’s motel room.
At the insistence of Father Michael Delpapp (Michael Berresse), Connolly tries to break through to this closed-off soul with her salty tongue, intolerance of B.S. and revelations of her own past of homelessness, drink and more — some which she reveals to him, and some of which she shares with the audience, “Equus”-style, in a series of monologues.
It’s not until the discovery of other details of the boy’s backstory and “Agnes of God”-type relations that the characters’ dynamics change and Cody reaches the lowest depths and (in Sister Jamison’s mind) spiritual heights.
Rob Ruggiero, who helmed Lombardo’s Rialto bow, “Looped,” brings out two theatrically exciting and authentic perfs, from Turner as the troubled nun and newcomer Jonigkeit as lost boy Cody. Their sessions are bracing faceoffs of obsessive wills, but it’s clear that Turner’s driving the duels — and the show. Just listen to her basso rumble out with an “Oh, little-boy, little-boy,” and watch her opposition wither.
Despite a solid presence that registers paternal piety, Berresse is unable to fill in the unfocused and underwritten role of Father Michael, who has a few secrets of his own that offer more questions than answers.
With some sharp rewrites, “High” could develop into a more satisfying and less troublesome play — and offer an aud-pleasing showcase for actors. But to become a serious study of addiction and/or faith, it needs to go deeper, not higher.