The best moments in High, a Repertory Theatre of St. Louis world premiere collaboration with TheatreWorks of Hartford, Connecticut, and the Cincinnati Playhouse on the Park, come when Sister Jamison is delivering a monologue to the audience or trading barbs with her boss, Father Michael Delpapp (Michael Berresse). In a reverse of their actual power relationship, Father Michael plays the role of her straight man. In fact, Matthew Lombardo's play frequently feels as if it were originally written as a one-woman show and the roles of Father Michael and Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), a young drug addict and street hustler who Sister Jamison has been assigned to counsel, were tacked on later. In contrast to Sister Jamison's well-crafted monologues, many dialogue scenes strain credibility as expository tasks are clumsily accomplished and obligatory issues and themes are dutifully trotted out and checked off.
The role of Cody is the least well-developed of the three. Although we are treated to a confessional-style recital of the lurid details of his life (pimping for his mother at age 7, introduced to drugs and non-consensual sex a few years later, kicked out of his home not long afterwards, brought to rehab after nearly dying of an overdose) we get little to indicate that there's an actual person under that collection of facts. Instead, he remains an abstraction and a device to push the rather creaky plot forward rather than ever becoming a real character.
This puts the young man playing Cody, Evan Jonigkeit, at a serious disadvantage. Not only is he sharing the stage with the legendary Turner and the far more experienced Berresse (whose Broadway career includes an Obie Award for directing and choreographing [title of show] and a Tony nomination for his role as Bill in Kiss Me, Kate), but he has to do it in an underwritten role which I'm not sure anyone could make convincing.
High feels like a 1970s problem play whose purpose is the peeling away of layers of deception to uncover the deep dark secrets the characters are trying to conceal. Unfortunately, tell-all television programs have long since pre-empted the ability of most of what is revealed in High to shock anyone (although they do strain credibility) and the play doesn't do anything interesting with the revelations it does present. There's one exception which comes near the end of the play but its dramatic power is weakened by the long series of revelations which have preceded it. The scene which is primarily responsible for the warnings which accompany this show (no one under age 18 will be admitted without parent or guardian, according to the Rep's web site) doesn't work as intendedit's more silly than shocking and suggests a playwright grasping for anything which might help him make an impact on the audience.
For all the defects of this play, it's worth seeing because of Kathleen Turner's performance. She's tough, she's confrontational, and she's also wickedly funny due in no part to her character's improbably foul mouth (she confides that she couldn't handle giving up both booze and bad language so she decided to part with the habit which was killing her rather than the one which was bad manners at cocktail parties). And ask yourself, when do you think we living in St. Louis will next have the opportunity to see her live and in person?
Another reason to see High at the Rep is to enjoy the visual delights of this production featuring the work of scenic designer David Gallo, costume designer Jess Goldstein, and lighting designer John Lasiter. High takes place on a black trapezoidal stage with a black backdrop which is sometimes lit with the stars of a clear night sky and sometimes serves as a plain backdrop for dramatic light-and-shadow effects. The black-and-white theme is echoed in the costumes (when Father Michael puts on his purple chasuble, the intrusion of so strong a color is almost shocking) and several large, white movable walls (sometimes given color through lighting) which create different settings, from Sister Jamison's office to a city street.
High will continue at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through November 7. Ticket information is available in person from the Repertory Theatre Box Office, by phone at 314-968-4925 or online at www.repstl.org.