PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Kathleen Turner

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Kathleen Turner
 
Two-time Tony Award nominee Kathleen Turner is back on Broadway this spring in a ripe new drama filled with juicy conflict.

Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In Matthew Lombardo's three-character play, High, she plays a nun who has struggled with alcoholism (and other challenges) and is now counseling a meth-addicted young hustler who is brought to her door by an enabling priest. Secrets, threats, violence, sex, profanity and more punctuate the script. Turner's "Sister Jamie" is no shrinking violet, and the actress likes it that way.

Turner — of Broadway's Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Graduate, Indiscretions and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, plus Hollywood's "Body Heat," "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Romancing the Stone" — developed the High role at three regional theatres before coming to Broadway's Booth Theatre. We caught up with her between New York City rehearsals. Just like Sister Jamie, Turner tells it like it is.

You've never been attracted to simple characters. From what I know of Sister Jamison Connelly, this is a complicated lady.
Kathleen Turner: [Laughs.] No, I have never been attracted to simple characters — which implies clichéd characters [where] you already know how they behave before they ever step on stage. No, this has never been interesting to me. To me, what's interesting is the exploration of why. Why somebody would choose this word or that thought or why this would be important to them, do you know? I mean, I think that's what acting is about.

 

Kathleen Turner in High.
photo by Larry Nagler

Tell me about the character you play.
KT: Sister Jamie comes from a very compromised, a very troubled, background. She had a tremendous personal tragedy, which launched her…into alcoholism, into homelessness, into a complete loss of belief and faith. …She was brought up in the Catholic religion and she comes back to it and finds her recovery, I think, through the exercising of her faith and helping other people with addiction. [The play is] a three-character piece. We have a young meth addict named Cody Randall, who's played amazingly by this actor, Evan Jonigkeit. We have Father Michael, who is my superior in the rehabilitation center, who is [played by] Stephen Kunken, who is — [Stephen is] just great. Our playwright, Matthew Lombardo, is a recovering meth addict, so the play is really informed by his life and his discoveries. When you first read it, what did you say? Did she jump off the page?
KT: No! When I first read it, I called [Matthew] up and said, "This is nowhere near ready. This is not a play yet." And so, we talked, and three months later, I got a rewrite. I said, "All right. You listened to me. This is good, but it's not ready." … And then, three months later, I got another rewrite, and I said, "Well, I guess we better sit down." What can I say? The [character] appeals to me. She is tenacious. She is rather tactless. She is certainly a woman of strong beliefs and action, regardless of consequences. What can I say? Okay, that's giving enough away!

Rob Ruggiero is our director and very much Matthew's partner in terms of this whole project. It's been a great exploration, a great journey. We were in Hartford, then Cincinnati, then St. Louis, and every city we went to, we found more and more in terms of what we wanted to say, what we felt needed to be said, how to do it.

In the play, a boy is brought to you —
KT: Yeah, he is brought to the Catholic center.

He's compromised.
KT: Oh, he's a meth addict who's only ended up with us because of a near-overdose.

Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High.
photo by Larry Nagler

When we talk about religious people, lately, we often look at their weaknesses. Is Sister Jamie weak?
KT: All the characters are flawed. There's no doubt. I don't believe anyone isn't. What is so extraordinary about this is, it's not about any one organized religion or any one church. I wouldn't be involved with it if it was, because that's inherently offensive to me. It is about faith, and I think we all act on faith so much. Every day, hundreds of times, we do something because we believe something will follow. And I think that … what addiction can represent is a complete loss of faith, that that is our battle.

Are you a research-oriented actress, or do you trust the page?
KT: Oh, I trust the page. No, I truly do. I certainly have done some learning, because I had to. I knew nothing about this kind of addiction, about methamphetamines. I knew very little about a lot of these issues, which are intensely disturbing. Frightening, you know?

And you were not raised Catholic, I assume?
KT: No, no. Never knew anything about it.

Did you talk to a nun in preparation?
KT: Nah. I use what I'm given.

Tell me the first Broadway show you saw.
KT: First Broadway show? Well, I went to high school in London — we were there when I was 13 — so I remember my first London show, which was Mame. But then, going to the theatre became such a huge part of my life. Honestly, I can't tell you the first Broadway [show I saw]. Isn't that terrible? I'll have to think on it. I'll have to figure that one out…

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com or follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

The cast and playwright Lombardo discuss High:

 

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