Kathleen Turner

The Star's Turn

The renovated Long Wharf Theatre has debuted with The Killing of Sister George, featuring a star turn by Kathleen Turner.  The play seems a curious choice: an all-female play that recreates a somewhat dated view of lesbian relationships from the England of 1964.  The original play, by Frank Marcus, has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher to lend a bit more nuance to the characters, but without altering its most troublesome fact: it’s set in a Britain still enamoured of its wireless broadcasts, which were full of sentimental evocations of a world where Sister George—the character Turner’s June Buckridge plays on a BBC Radio Programme—is a beacon of good works and selfless behaviour in a rural village.  The humour of the play—which does not really aim at camp—relies upon a wry dryness in evoking British quirks that simply doesn’t translate well to an all-American cast in our day.  Consequently, the play, as directed by Turner, feels a bit compromised, as if in search of a new unifying perspective that eludes it.

The point of the play, though, still manages to come through, once we get past the faux British mannerisms, and that point has to do with a tough-as-nails, matronly star getting her comeuppance from the BBC for fractious behavior and, what’s worse, losing her role as the beloved Sister George simply because the powers that be insist upon a change.  The arbitrariness of fortune afflicts everyone, even prized actors—a lesson that may have attracted Turner to the part.  Her version of June is brash and barking.  Some of the best bits are delivered with the cutting swagger of Alan Bates at his most truculent, and the strength of the role is in the fact that June never drops her caustic assessment of the weaknesses of those around her.  Despite the mawkishness of Sister George, the character that has been her claim to fame, June has no tolerance for the bathetic in day-to-day life.

The play is built upon the tension of liking someone we’d rather dislike—though the role never quite gets to the “love to hate” level, if only because Turner is so deft at exposing June’s insecurities.  Her flat-mate and paramour, Alice, aka Childie (Clea Alsip), is a case in point: she’s a child-woman much older than she seems, preferring a somewhat anxious life as June’s whipping-girl and factotum to life fending for herself.  The conceit that Marcus/Hatcher explore is that co-dependence is a compromise that will eventually suck away one’s life (Alice) or leave one exposed to an emotional comeuppance (June).  The two play off each other well, with Alsip’s Childie obviously cannier than June gives her credit for; blinded by Childie’s willingness to be an abused “bottom” to her own bullying “top,” June little suspects her paramour may outgrow her.

The most affecting moment from the point of view of the love story between June and Childie is when the two, decked out for a fancy dress ball, cavort in the guise of Laurel and Hardy.  We glimpse not only archetypes for their love-hate relationship, but also the camaraderie of their life together.  Of course, it’s shortly after this that things take a turn for the worse.

The villain in the piece, from June’s point of view, is Mrs. Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem, making the most of it), a hatchet-woman of the BBC—and also a radio personality in her own right for her broadcast bromides—whose clipped politesse is anathema to June, and who manages to woo Childie with flattery of her literary gifts.  One suspects that Marcus has seen this sort of thing enough—a younger prize up for grabs between wheedling elders—to give it the right tone of arch inevitability.  The satisfaction of the play, in the end, is in seeing June not cave-in.  Turner—as director and actress—has the guts to let the play maintain the principles of June’s scorn.

The set and costumes—as is generally the case when Long Wharf goes for ‘period’—are quite good.  June and Childie live in a kind of over-stuffed world where the older woman’s trophies and plaques vie for space with the younger woman’s collection of Victorian dolls (June likes to threaten horrible fates for one called Emmeline whenever Childie gets out of line).  Costuming for Turner is particularly appropriate, as she sets off twinges of memory recalling Simone Signoret in the Sixties.

The Long Wharf continues to develop its penchant for middling comedies that might be spinnable into something more.  Here, the sadomasochistic touches are neither campy nor creepy enough to give us much purchase on what Marcus had in mind.  The Killing of Sister George is not entirely bloodless—there’s a great speech from Mercy, late in the play, about the BBC’s wisdom in choosing its sacrificial victims, and one imagines that anyone whose career is not immune to the whims of management will identify with June’s final utterances. Bracing and brash, and never bathetic, Turner’s Sister George is worth catching.

The Killing of Sister George has made a “killing” in selling more tickets on one day (November 26th, Cyber Monday) than at any time in the Long Wharf’s history.  A star gracing the stage at the Long Wharf's newly renovated C. Newton Schenck Theatre is reason enough, perhaps, for the flood of interest.  The seating is greatly improved and the lobby and façade are more graceful, but Stage II also hit a new record with Satchmo at the Waldorf in the fall.  Unlike certain larger venues in the vicinity, the Long Wharf is more than ever the place—on both stages—to see great acting up close and comfortably.

Kathleen Turner in The Killing of Sister George By Frank Marcus Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher Directed by Kathleen Turner

Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Miss Turner Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht; Stage Manager: Bryce McDonald; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Pat McCorkle Casting, Ltd.

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre November 28-December 23, 2012

What Vegetable Are You? or, I Have No Idea Who Killed Sister George.

Last night I had a hot date. My friend M, who I don't get to hang out with very often, asked me if I'd like to accompany her to see The Killing of Sister George, now opened at the newly-renovated Long Wharf Theatre. I am not a theater person, but, on the other hand, I am not one to turn down the offer of a night away from my four year old, so I said, "Sure!"

I wasn't fully aware of it at the time I accepted her offer, but this show is a big deal for Long Wharf for many reasons, the most glitzy being, the play is directed by, and stars, world-famous hot tomato Kathleen Turner.

M and I got to Long Wharf and it turned out that the comp tickets we thought would be awaiting us were not awaiting us. It's a long story, and not that interesting. But we were not alone: many others in the same boat also didn't get in. So, the theatre staff, clearly feeling like schmucks, and feeling bad for everyone, offered us all tickets for another performance. The staff was actually really nice, and very apologetic to us. We got our consolation prize tickets and then, of course ,the question was: Well, if we're not seeing the play, what the hell do we do now?

This question was settled by our running into Steve Scarpa. I know Steve a little: we've wasted quite a few hours chatting about nothing in particular, either standing on the street, or at the Institute Library. I think he was rather surprised to see me at the theatre: he knows I'm not that kind of girl, generally speaking. I explained that I was really M's date, just along for the ride. He said he was really sorry we hadn't been able to see the show, and urged us to have a drink and stay for the after-party. M and I considered our options (many and varied, of course -- there is no shortage of places where we could have gone to have a drink; or, we could have just called it a night and gone home, but that'd be dull). The consensus was: What the hell, we'll stick around. So, she (with her complimentary wine) and I (with my complimentary bourbon) sat down in the lobby and had a good old-fashioned chinwag, of the type we only get to have two or three times a year. It was, really, so nice to sit and talk. And in a pretty glitzy setting, without loud music blaring: not bad at all.

At the after-party, where there were tables of food awaiting us, M and I wound up in conversation with my fellow New Haven Review contributor Donald Brown (who is, of course, a real theater buff; his presence at the play was not at all surprising). Among the topics we discussed was vegetables, because we were trying to assure someone near us that the thing she was about to eat was, yes, a piece of fried eggplant -- she seemed concerned that it might be... something else. (No idea what.) The practical aspects  of vegetables taken care of, we moved on to more important questions -- specifically, one, which was: If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? This is an awesome parlor game, by the way. M swears that years ago, she and my husband and I played this game together and that he said I was, no question, an artichoke. I don't remember this at all but I accept it easily. We decided that being an eggplant probably would be a mixed bag, since they absorb so much grease (a bad thing), but that, on the upside, they adapt to so many flavors so well.

We were wondering whether or not Donald was an ear of corn -- concluding, in the end, that he might well be  -- when Kathleen Turner arrived in the room.

It bears repeating that Ms. Turner is a hot tomato, but in light of our conversation of the moment, M reconsidered and said that she was maybe more of a red pepper. I concede that this is possible. A red pepper is one thing raw, but another thing entirely -- smokier, sexier -- when roasted. We watched Ms. Turner charm her fried-mushroom-eating and spinach-stuffed-bread-eating audience, and finally worked up our nerve to go over to her and shake her hand. We considered asking her What vegetable are you? but decided not to: Too Barbara Walters, we agreed. In the end we simply said it was nice to meet her. She was gracious and spoke to us briefly in her strange raspy voice.

But then: what else was left for us to do? Not much. What do you do once you've shaken hands with Kathleen Turner?

We said goodnight to Donald and headed out. As luck would have it, Ms. Turner did the same thing, and so we had the pleasure of watching her make her way to her car. We didn't follow them closely enough that I could tell you "and we tailed them all the way to Turner's hotel, and then we went upstairs and killed a bottle of whiskey with her -- good times. We picked up a Veggie Bomb pizza from Modern, too, because, you know, when in New Haven..." No, we're not that interesting. M drove me home, and then she drove herself home, and that was that.

A night at the theater when you don't get to see the play should be a frustrating night. Anyone would guess that. But M and I, we had a hell of a good time.

Looking Ahead at the Long Wharf

One of the most popular of last season’s productions at the Long Wharf Theatre—My Name is Asher Lev—will be produced Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd Street, beginning on November 8, with the opening night set for November 28. Director Gordon Edelstein, and Ari Brand and Mark Nelson—both excellent in the Long Wharf show—will reunite in New York to recreate this thoughtful and compact re-telling of Chaim Potok’s novel about a young Jewish painter coming to terms with his faith’s prohibition on images, while also tracing the drama of the artist’s growth within his family and his community.

The play closed last year’s Long Wharf season, offering an autobiographical drama staged as a direct address to the audience.  And this year’s Long Wharf season begins with an autobiographical play that is a direct address to the audience, also directed by Edelstein.

This time the play is Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, and the biographer of Louis Armstrong, the subject of the play.  Unlike Asher Lev, Satchmo is a one-man show, with celebrated actor John Douglas Thompson (recently featured in a New Yorker profile) playing the jazz great, known as “Satchmo” (short for “satchel mouth,” a nickname invented because of his wide mouth and the distinctive style of trumpet playing that issued from it).

Unlike the production of Ella in the Long Wharf’s 2010 Season, Satchmo is not about the music.  Teachout has created a play that, set backstage after Armstrong’s last performance, looks at the musician’s life and long career from his perspective, bringing forward the fraught relationship with his controlling manager, Joe Glaser.  Thompson plays Armstrong, Glaser, and at one point Miles Davis.  Teachout said he deliberately avoided the “unchallenging, sweet-tempered exercises in hagiography” that most biographical plays become, wanting to give us an unadorned Armstrong, closer to the actual man than the stage persona beloved by so many. Much of the play’s success, one suspects, will ride on Thompson’s skill at getting us inside the character.

Satchmo at the Waldorf opens tomorrow night, Wednesday, October 3, and runs to Sunday, November 4 on Stage II.

The season showcases Long Wharf’s two resident directors: Edelstein, the Artistic Director, and Eric Ting, Associate Artistic Director, with Edelstein helming Satchmo, and two works on the Main Stage by hard-hitting playwrights: Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, a drama of a family tearing itself apart to get ahead, and William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, about the behind-the-scenes sex and shenanigans leading up to the election of 1960, with John F. Kennedy, mob boss Sam Giancarlo, and Frank Sinatra trying to bed the same woman.  Judith Ivey, whose work in Shirley Valentine at the Long Wharf was warmly received in 2010, will be featured in the Shepard play.

Ting will direct Clybourne Park; Bruce Norris’ drama on race in America is set in the house bought by the Youngers, the upwardly mobile black family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  The much acclaimed play—it won both the Pulitizer Prize for Drama in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012—will close the season.  Midseason, Ting directs January Joiner, a world premiere, on Stage II; it's a “horror comedy,” by young playwright Laura Jacqmin, set at a weight-loss boot camp (a “January joiner” is someone who joins a weight-loss program in January as a New Year’s resolution, but soon drops out).

The play this season not directed by Edelstein or Ting should be interesting as well: film star and Broadway actress Kathleen Turner will direct herself in The Killing of Sister George, Frank Marcus’s 1964 play, a bristling comedy about a radio-actress unwilling to let her role go off the air without a fight.  The 1968 film of the play played up, rather sensationally, the lesbian relationship between the radio star and her housemate, and it will be interesting to see what spin the play receives today, directed by its star.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated renovation continues for the mainstage.  The seating is being greatly improved—more leg room!—and the lobby has been redesigned, the bathrooms enlarged, and the façade has had “work done.”