'High'

Kathleen Turner is bigger -- and far, far better -- than "High," a trashy melodrama by Matthew Lombardo.

Kathleen Turner is bigger — and far, far better — than “High,” a trashy melodrama by Matthew Lombardo that profits from the star’s liking for the kind of earthy, strong-minded women so often and easily patronized as “broads with balls.” Here, it’s a dirty-talking, no-nonsense nun whose expert counseling skills are severely stretched when she takes on a gay teenaged junkie and street hustler facing jail time. Turner does her best to bring warmth and intelligence to the brass-knuckled nun, but this troubled saint remains a flimsy character in a hollow play.

The dubious reality of this contrived drama is compounded by the artificiality of the setting. In David Gallo’s design, the church-run clinic offices are sketchily represented by two free-standing white doors that open into the vaguely defined study where Sister Jamison Connelly (Turner) does her counseling. The enveloping cyclorama of a star-filled sky — a symbol of Sister Jamison’s spiritual aspirations — is peaceful to look at, but with no recognizable planets or constellations depicted in that vault of sky, it registers mainly as pretty wallpaper.

Unlike other religiously themed plays like “Doubt” and “Agnes of God,” “High” does not revolve around a substantial issue like pedophile priests or miraculous stigmata. On the contrary, Sister Jamison and her superior, Father Michael Delpapp (the amiable Stephen Kunken), butt heads on a manufactured conflict over whether they should be treating a hard case like Cody Randall (a showy debut from Evan Jonigkeit) in the first place.

Father insists on it, for not-bad reasons that are later made clear. But Sister Jamison’s fierce bureaucratic arguments against it (“Why not send him to a state-run facility?”) are preposterous, coming from someone who would be expected to welcome the challenge of rescuing a lost lamb.

Once she caves, Sister Jamison discovers that Cody is every bit as hopeless as she’d feared.

Jonigkeit doesn’t hold much back in his portrayal of this sullen, stupid kid with the battered body (ugly bruises courtesy of makeup specialist Joe Rossi) and mean disposition. But for (again, not bad) reasons that will eventually come out, Sister Jamison is moved to save both his ass and his soul.

For a while, the generational and cultural clash between this self-destructive throwaway child and the big-hearted nun are genuinely engaging.

Under Rob Ruggiero’s direction, Jonigkeit carefully paces out the revelations about Cody’s abusive background, while Turner applies her perfect comic timing to Sister Jamison’s outrageous habit of mouthing off. “I did all that shit in the ’70s,” she says, airily dismissing Cody’s boastful account of his drug history.

But while Sister Jamison is a colorful character, she’s too limited in dimension to make serious demands on Turner. The other two characters are even more insubstantial.

To state the obvious, the kid is just a kid. And when he takes off his clothes and attempts to rape the nun, Turner’s assertion that she could “beat the fuck” out of him if he ever tried a trick like that again is undeniably (and regrettably) all too true. And for all Kunken’s artful bickering, Father Michael doesn’t really have a legitimate quarrel with Sister Jamison.

Even against that big night sky, a star needs some incentive to shine.

High

Booth Theater; 799 seats; $111.50 top

Production

A presentation by Leonard Soloway, Chase Mishkin, Terry Schnuck, Ann Cady Scott, Timothy J. Hampton, James and Catherine Berges, Craig Schnuck, Barbara and Buddy Freitag, Lauren Class Schneider, David Mirvish, Gene Fisch, Jr./Stu Sternbach, Jacki Barlia Florin/Michael A. Alden and Lizabeth Zindel, the Shubert Organization, and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, of a play in two acts by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Rob Ruggiero.

Creative

Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, John Lasiter; original music and sound, Vincent Olivieri; special makeup design, Joe Rossi; production stage manager, Bess Marie Glorioso. Reviewed April 14, 2011. Opened April 19. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Sister Jamison Connelly - Kathleen Turner
Father Michael Delpapp - Stephen Kunken
Cody Randall - Evan Jonigkeit

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