"When this play was first done, in the mid- 1960s in London and then New York, there was such shock value because there was a lesbian relationship," Kathleen Turner says. "We don't have that shock value now. That's all to the good, because it gives us a chance to delve deeper into the actual relationship, rather than just the fact of it."
Turner is talking about The Killing of Sister George, the 1964 British play by Frank Marcus, which she is starring in and directing at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, starting in late November.
She portrays the title character — or rather, she is June Buckridge, who plays Sister George, a kindhearted nurse on a BBC radio soap opera always coming to the aid of the English villagers of Applehurst. The "real" Buckridge, though, is a tough, cigar-wielding gin aficionado who lives with and dominates another woman.
Suddenly, as the radio show slides in popularity, its producers decide that this is the end of Sister George. British actress Beryl Reid was the original Buckridge in London and on Broadway, winning a 1967 Tony for Best Actress. Turner says she was attracted to the part because even though Buckridge "is a rough woman," she is "ultimately probably the most naïve and the nicest, sweetest" of the play's characters. "I like characters that on the surface seem so bold and brassy and confident but are so awfully vulnerable inside."
Twice Tony-nominated, as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Oscar-nominated for "Peggy Sue Got Married," Turner says her interest in Sister George began a few years ago when she took on the role at a reading held by Manhattan's Roundabout Theatre Company.
"I was very caught up with [June]," she says, but she felt the play needed to be revised. She approached Marcus' estate, which agreed, and contacted playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who adapted the work in a way both she and the estate approved.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
How is it different? "I'll give you one clue," she says. "In the original, we find out very early, at the top of the second act, that Sister George is going to be killed off. Well, it just doesn't ring true to me that she would make no attempt to stop that. So what we've done is weave in a subplot for her to keep her character alive." This is Turner's first directorial assignment since a 2008 revival of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart for Roundabout Theatre Company.
"Since then I've been looking around, at least in my mind, for the next piece I would want to direct. I find myself very drawn to plays about the relationship between women, because I think it's much less explored, much less clichéd. Not nearly as many assumptions are made."
She comes to Long Wharf from the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where she portrayed journalist Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, winning raves, as she had in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. She has also been traveling with High, her most recent Broadway vehicle (written by Matthew Lombardo).
She is in remission from the severely painful rheumatoid arthritis that took hold in the 1990s, badly damaged her film career and led to a vodka addiction that increased her troubles. "I'm able to stop all the medications, which is fantastic. I find it quite a relief. But it's not easy. My knees and feet have all had multiple operations. A couple of other joints will need surgery. But I'm not quite ready for that."
(This feature appears in the November 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)