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A CurtainUp Review
I need to believe that people can and do change. That miracles happen to the most destitute of souls. And that God does forgive and offer salvation beyond the scientific data that guarantees only a third of us will survive — Sister Jamison
Kathleen Turner
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
You don't want to mess with no-nonsense, gutter-mouthed (that presumably makes her funny) Sister Jamison Connelly, as played by Kathleen Turner in Matthew Lombardo's occasionally gripping but also gratuitously lurid new play. Who better than this reluctant counselor in a minimum security rehab center to take up the challenge and the challenger that is Cory Randall (Evan Jonigkeit) a 19 year-old drug addict put in her care against her will and better judgment? It seems that Cody has attempted suicide with an overdose after being found in a hotel room with a sodomized and dead 14 year-old boy.

The authorities, unable to recover any evidence or establish Cody's part in the boy's death, have turned him over to the center where the chief administrator Father Michael Delpapp (Stephen Kunken) may have his own reasons for keeping him away from a state institution and for wanting to supervise the boy's hoped-for recovery and salvation. Turner, who has, indeed, played some tough cookies on TV, in film and on stage (most notably Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) is up against a formidable opponent.

While Sister Jameson initially questions her ability and expertise in dealing with the seemingly irrevocably addicted Cory, it seems she also has her very personal reasons to prove she is up to the task. In one scene after another and during Sister Jamison's between-scenes monologues, we are given further evidence that her religious convictions, empowered by a kind of moral and ethical pragmatism, have little to do with piety. This provides a formidable combination of traits that give Turner opportunities for considerable emotional mobility, which that the husky voiced actress uses to her advantage.

No habit for this Sister, just basic black slacks and a black sweater. Darker yet is her unsparing use of expletives, the kind that would make most nuns and priests blush or, more realistically, cringe. Sister Jamison is exactly the person to deal with the incorrigible Cory. It is, however, the circumstances of both their lives that make this a match made in heaven, or perhaps hell, and provide the core of this purposefully sensationalized drama.

While Turner is a theatrical force of nature and has an uncanny sense of timing and the ability to belt out a funny or even a terrifying line with bravado, her deep, almost mushy voice often sounds like Tallulah Bankhead — an ironic aspect to consider since she would/could have been a perfect fit (perhaps as good or better than did Valerie Harper) for playing Tallulah at the end of her life in Lombardo's previous play Looped.

The prescribed twist in this play is that redemption isn't always channeled through traditional means. As such, there is nothing inevitable about the prospect that Cory's defensive walls will come crumbling down in the wake Sister Jamison's relentless efforts to show him the path to salvation through faith. Officially obligated to be harsh and uncompromising in her teaching and practice in regard to rehabilitation, she is also determined to be unconventional and deliberately combative in dealing with Cory.

Jonigkeit, who is making his Broadway debut, gives an extremely persuasive performance as the dangerously unpredictable victim of societal and parental abuse. Living on the streets by his wits as a male prostitute, his filthy, needle-punctured body is barely able to keep him upright, Cory is a wasted shell of a human being. Unfortunately, the play becomes a bit incredible when the mystery that lurks behind Father Michael's suspiciously protective concern for Cory is revealed.

More believable is the testy relationship that develops between Sister Jamison and Cory. It has as much to do with his as well as her journey to a High. The play's apt title refers to both a spiritual high and the kind one gets from drugs.

Under the attentive direction of Rob Ruggiero High is certainly harrowing as we get a glimpse into how young lives are shaped and made susceptible to all kinds of addictions as a result of such unconscionable human behavior as child molestation, rape, and prostitution.

One particularly explicit scene involving a sexual assault that includes full male nudity hovers precariously on pandering. But High also dives more evocatively and bracingly into Sister Jamison's past as an alcoholic and her life on the streets. This presumably makes her particularly responsive to Cory's deep-seated problems. At the very least, Sister Jamison is a vigilantly confrontational, non-patronizing advisor who deserves a degree from the taking-the-bull-by-its-horns school of survival. The good news is that she is an impressive soul who doesn't need a guitar on her lap or a few laps around the Alps to make a point.

There are also issues that surface between Sister Jamison and Father Michael. Kunken who's new to the cast since it's Hartford Stage premiere (review), has deservedly earned award nominations for his performances in Enron and Frost/Nixon, does a fine job of showing Father Michael's conflicted motives as well as his true colors in an unsettling showdown with the nun. The cumulative effectiveness of this play, however, ultimately rests with Turner. She leaves no doubt even when dispensing some rather dreary monologues spoken in the light of designers David Gallo (set) and John Lasiter (lighting) galaxy of stars that her salvation was the direct result of uniting her well-intentioned vows with well-rounded vowels.

By Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Cast: Kathleen Turner (Sister Jamison Connelly), Stephen Kunken (Father Michael Delpapp), Evan Jonigkeit (Cody Randall)
Set Design: David Gallo
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: John Lasiter
Sound Design and Original Compositions: Vincent Olivieri
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street (212) 239 - 6200
Tickets ($61.50 - $111.50)
Performances: Tuesday - Saturday evenings at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 PM & Sunday matinee at 3 PM.
Opened 04/19/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/15/11
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