Religion is taking a beating on Broadway this season. That isn’t to say theater is pointing its gun at God, but rather shining a light on faith and daring audiences to make their own informed conclusions. First, the new musical The Book of Mormon takes religion out of its precisely manufactured packaging and encourages that we just believe. Now in the new dark drama High, playwright Matthew Lombardo asks the audience—how much do you believe?
In High, Kathleen Turner stars as Sister Jamison, a foul-mouthed, ex-alcoholic nun working at an addiction center. Father Michael (Stephen Kunken) assigns her a new patient, Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), who will prove to be the ultimate test of her faith. Cody is a 19 year old who has been on drugs since he was 8 (and raped at that time too). He has been brought in by authorities after being discovered at a grim motel scene, where a 14-year-old companion had overdosed and Cody attempted suicide. Can you feel the heaviness yet?
Cody, however, doesn’t want to get clean, and the stubbornness of the 19-year-old drug addict and the ex-alcoholic nun mixes together like gasoline and matches.
While High’s narrative might be all about Cody and the attempt to save him, the story is really about Sister Jamison and her unraveling. Right off the bat, she is introduced to us as bold, brash, and strong. She wears her former addiction and her raw past like a medal. Yet as she sinks deeper into Cody’s darkness, the strength that initially emanates from Sister Jamison reveals itself to be a façade.
Broadway fare rarely shocks these days, so when it does, it is a delicious treat. It isn’t due to the fact that both Book of Mormon and High cast a discerning eye on religion, but these two shows happen to be in the minority in a heap of new shows that—while mostly good—travel a safe line of Broadway-by-number guidelines that do not push, poke, or prod the audience. Between Sister Jamison’s expletive-filled lines and the play’s sharp turns, High at times feels like a hot, wet cloth to the face.
High does something that too many shows are afraid to do—provide the audience with unpleasantness. On display in this show is foul language, description of rape, demonstration of drug use, violent outbursts, and a deep questioning of God. Some might be turned off by these offerings, but I found they made for a night of edge-of-my-seat intrigue and genuine curiosity as to how this story would continue to unfold. That’s the kind of experience I look for at the theater, and High gave it to me.
The cast is fantastic and offers a great mix of three kinds of actors. We have the Hollywood heavyweight, an actor on a great Broadway streak, and a promising newcomer making his debut.
Kathleen Turner fills every expectation in this role that was built for her by Lombardo. She’s delightfully brash and tough as nails, which gets big laughs. Yet Lombardo and Turner have built a complex woman, and as I sat in the theater trying to figure her out, I felt as if Sister Jamison too was putting the pieces together along with me. She is in limbo with her faith and she knows that counseling Cody is a make-or-break moment for her. In numerous monologues that divide the scenes of the play, the already minimal set by David Gallo fades away and Turner speaks against a celestial backdrop of tiny blue and white lights by John Lasiter. Each time, Turner seems to disappear into her own world through her face and intonations. This is a place of self-reflection for Sister Jamison, and Turner makes it a fascinating place to be. When Sister Jamison is not in her peaceful realm, Turner bubbles over with rage and passion intense enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Turner bounds from platforms of serenity, anger, disgust, and caring with ease and commitment, adding up to a deep performance.
Kunken, coming off a Tony nomination for his performance in last year’s Enron and a supporting role in Frost/Nixon a few years before that, is making quite a home for himself on Broadway. (Read Stage Rush’s profile on Stephen Kunken) He plays Father Michael, who reaches out to Sister Jamison for assistance, yet constantly pulls rank on her. He does so with a placidness that indicates his character’s arrogance. Later however, and without giving anything away, Kunken becomes heartbreaking while displaying Father Michael’s inability to make a sound choice against his own emotions.
While Turner is given generous amounts of material to ham it up onstage, Jonigkeit, making his Broadway debut, gives a jaw-dropping performance that clashes head on with Turner’s showiness. While this is just a role (this is what actors do), it is difficult to imagine Jonigkeit as anything but an illiterate, inarticulate, punk of a drug dealer in real life. His is a terrifying dive into this teenager who has only known life from the gutter. Jonigkeit is at times snide, others frightening, and then scared and broken. The emotional places he travels are so extreme and genuine that it indicates a massive talent that hopefully will be delivering for years to come.
The fact that religion is such a main facet of High, more attention should have been paid to Sister Jamison’s devotion to God and journey into the church. While the cursing is a grand characteristic to her character, it becomes a bit overwhelming and I forget for stretches of time that Turner’s character is a nun at all. The extremes of Cody’s character overshadow other important elements as well. While Cody has to be rude and disrespectful, he is also the one Sister Jamison and Father Michael are trying so desperately to save; therefore, some likeability needs to shine through. At times, due to his wretchedness, I wasn’t routing for Cody’s rehabilitation, which is a step off of the play’s intended path.
With a simple title, modest production value, and a bare bones cast, High is built to leave as much room as possible for the actors to explode their characters on the stage. Turner, Kunken, and Jonigkeit reach such heights that some moments feel like the Fourth of July. It’s been a while since a story this bleak was so exciting.
High rush policy:
Up to two tickets per person may be purchased for $26.50 each when the box office opens. Offer is limited to buyers between the ages of 17 – 21.
Sop to be clear: You hated JERUSALEM and loved HIGH? Good to know in case anyone was in danger of ever taking your opinion seriously.