The play “High” (at the Parker Playhouse February 29 – March 4) is not an easy one to describe. Even star Kathleen Turner has difficulty.
The Star Dazzles in a Play at Parker Playhouse
“My basic line is that she’s a foul-mouthed, recovering alcoholic nun who works in a Catholic rehab, and her superior priest gets her involved with treating a young meth-addicted prostitute. It’s the battle of faith versus addiction.”
That last part is really the crux of this provocative play by Matthew Lombardo. Faith and addiction might as well be the main characters. Turner’s Sister Jamison has had great success working with addicts. Submitting to a higher power is not something addicts immediately embrace, but Sister Jamie seems to have enough faith for an army. Or does she?
Beneath her gruff and tough exterior, one learns that the nun has her own demons – demons that occasionally resurface. The idea of working with Cody, the meth-addicted prostitute who has a deep-rooted secret, scares her. She voices her concern that this intense case is beyond the scope of what she can handle. Why? Because Sister Jamie is a recovering addict…although in her case, alcohol was her substance of choice.
I bring up faith-based treatment to Turner and wonder if that played a part in dealing with her own addictions. She immediately corrects me.
“I don’t believe I have addictions, to be honest. I certainly abused alcohol at a time when I was dealing with terrible pain [Turner suffers from rheumatoid arthritis]. But in my case, thankfully, I didn’t go down that road to addiction.”
What Lombardo has done so well is delineate the relationship between faith and addiction. When I sat down with the dashing playwright, he said, “Look, the American Medical Association says that there is no cure for alcoholism and addiction – the only successful treatment is a 12 Step Program, which is basically a faith-based curriculum. So the AMA is saying that if you believe in a power greater than yourself, you can be healed. That’s what I find fascinating.”
When Sister Jamison begins working with Cody, it’s clear that faith doesn’t come easy to him. I spoke with Evan Jonigkeit, who plays the star-making role with incredible vibrancy.
“When we meet him, Cody has no faith whatsoever. I don’t know if he ever had it. Yes, eventually he says what Sister Jamison tells him to say. But there’s saying the words and there’s having your heart filled with faith. Those are two very different things.”
When I saw the play during its first run in Hartford and later on Broadway, audience reaction was astonishing. Despite Turner’s colorful language eliciting laughs, people were profoundly affected by what they witnessed. Turner says that she experienced the same response.
“We would do these talk-backs after some performances. I think we’ve learned about how prevalent it is. We hardly met anyone who didn’t have a brother, a sister, a mother, a daughter…someone whose lives have not been, if not destroyed, then really damaged by some form of addiction.”
This realistic view comes courtesy of playwright Lombardo, a recovering crystal meth addict. His big break was writing a play about Katharine Hepburn called “Tea at Five.” It was a hit in New York and Lombardo subsequently produced the national tour with star Kate Mulgrew – unfortunately at a time when his drug use was spiraling out of control.
“The worst thing you can do is take your addiction on tour,” Lombardo jokes. “You think that each city is a clean slate, but all of the theaters were talking to each other and saying, ‘Oh, you have no idea what a nightmare you have coming your way.’ By the time we finished in Los Angeles, no one would work with me. My career was over. It was worse than having to start from scratch.”
Fort Lauderdale played a key role in his recovery.
“South Florida has the best recovery community in the country. There are a lot of halfway houses, a lot of treatment centers. After a few months, not only was I not using drugs anymore, but I started to have faith in myself again. I just started writing.” That resulted in ‘Looped,’ a play about Tallulah Bankhead which was staged at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach and starred Valerie Harper. It, too, was a hit and brought Lombardo to Broadway for the first time. Since then, most people have been willing to give him a second chance.
“You still have to prove yourself each and every day. But I was lucky to have at least gotten the opportunity.”
While writing “High,” he had Kathleen Turner in mind. He’s honored to have had her involved from the beginning – and the feeling is mutual. “It’s been a remarkable journey with this play,” Turner said. “And it makes you feel kind of honored to be so trusted in the creation of a new work. I’m very attracted to the idea of creating new pieces of theatre.”
Lombardo is quick to note that, despite his own history with crystal meth addiction, the role of Cody is not autobiographical.
“We auditioned hundreds of actors for the role. And then Evan walked in and blew us away. There was no question he had the part. He did his homework, he knew the character, he became the character. It was astonishing.”
Readers of Hotspots should know that the role of Cody involves full-frontal nudity. I asked Lombardo if he wanted the character to be sexy.
“Well, I don’t think Evan can help but be sexy! Cody operates on sex. He gets what he wants with sex. He’s a hustler, so he knows how to use it, how to turn it on and off. So, yes, it was important that we had a very strong sexual being. I think Evan instinctively has all those qualities – like a young Marlon Brando or James Dean.”
Turner is also effusive in praising her young co-star. “Let me tell you something – I think Evan’s one of the most exciting young actors around. I equate him with Jude Law, who I worked with on Broadway in ‘Indiscretions’. Evan is quite extraordinary. He’s got it.”
Is Turner as positive about the message of “High”? “I find it very hopeful. Near the end of the play, my character asks the priest ‘How does anyone live with so much pain?’ which I think covers a great range of issues, not just addiction. He answers, ‘Some people have more faith.’ Which I think is possible. It’s still a battle than can be fought and, indeed, one that can be won.”
Kathleen Turner in “High”
February 29-March 4
Tickets $36.50 to $56.50