by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle™
Intense, riveting, raw, graphic, honest, are words that can only suggest the impact of Michael Lombardo’s new powerful drama, “HIGH,” playing at Theaterworks until August 22 in downtown Hartford.
Although the lure of having a movie star in this world-premiere production is creating sold-out performances, another reality is that this play, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is breathtaking.
Ms. Turner is onstage during the entire course of the two one-hour acts. Her portrayal of addiction counselor Sister Jamison Connelly is so true that once the initial applause recognizing Kathleen Turner dies down, her character ‘Sister Jamie’ takes over completely.
Her boss, Father Michael, is played by talented and handsome Michael Berresse, who imbues his speech and movement with the kind of dedicated calmness and aura of many of the real priests we have known. Father Michael tries, with all his secrets, to remain in control of his addiction counseling clinic, even as Sister Jamie challenges his motivation and authority at every twist and turn in the compelling plot.
Enter the client-addict: Cody Randall has been ‘assigned’ to Sister Jamie. He is a drug dealing male hustler who is addicted to, among other drugs, injecting crystal meth. A suicide attempt has been sited as the reason for his being assigned to the church counselor, although Sister Jamie thinks there are other motives at play. She wants no part of counseling a determined loser for whom she expresses contempt, but she is given no choice. In these confrontational scenes Lombardo skillfully employs humor that grows out of some of the tensest moments in the play.
Critically acclaimed actor Evan Jonigkeit is stunning as Cody Randall. With an uncanny understanding of the character, the exotic-looking Evan uses what seems to be every nerve ending in his body to successfully bring Cody to life. We feel his pain as an addict yet at the same time can understand Sister Jamie’s lack of compassion for this manipulative street-kid.
In a key scene, in which nudity takes a major part, violence erupts between client and counselor. The raw tension, physical combat and battle of words causes us as the audience to watch in stunned silence. Here are two “forces of nature” in opposition.
The scene ends the first act, and at the conclusion of the battle, we, like Kathleen Turner, need to take a lingering pause – just to catch our collective breath.
David Gallo has created a minimal black-and-white set which works perfectly so as not to distract from the story. A chair and table, a door, or a wall can represent a church sacristy, a counselor’s office, or a filthy needle-strewn alley.
The play has had much pre-publicity regarding playwright Matthew Lombardo’s own addiction to crystal meth. His real-life story is revealed in the playbill, although this play is not autobiographical. Matthew, however, has created characters that are not only true, but are admittedly flawed and damaged. The play challenges us to confront our own flaws and addictions, but also asks us to assess, no matter how painful it is for us, our own damages.
Director Rob Ruggiero worked on this play having been given five gifts. The first gift is his knowing talent as a director who is an expert in well-paced story telling. The written words of Matthew Lombardo comprise the second gift. The next three gifts are Kathleen Turner, Evan Jonigkeit and Michael Berresse who make Jaime, Cody and Michael come to life as fully rounded characters.
A week or so after “HIGH” opened, a friend told us that she had seen it. Although we recognize that each person perceives drama with a different view, we asked “What did you think?” Taking a deep breath she said, “Wow, it was a lot to process. I’m still doing that.”
“HIGH” gives you a pass from thinking for two riveting hours. You don’t need to think. You just need to watch, listen and feel. Later, in the quiet moments when the processing of “HIGH” begins, you’ll think…..about addiction, about compassion, about motivation, about selfishness, and about our fragility as flawed human beings in the vastness of the universe.
“HIGH” at TheaterWorks at City Arts on Pearl, 223 Pearl Street, Hartford. Through August 22 only. Tickets: www.theaterworkshartford.org 860.527.7838.
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