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Kathleen Turner Stars In High At Hartford's TheaterWorks

Plays Nun in Recovery in Premiere of Play by Matthew Lombardo


July 01, 2010

Kathleen Turner thinks god may be trying to tell her something.

She just finished a film role in "The Perfect Family," where she played a religious woman desperately vying for the Catholic of the Year award.

Now in "High," which is receiving its world premiere at TheaterWorks in Hartford, she is playing Sister Jamison Connolly, a recovering alcoholic "with a terrible and turbulent background" who is working in a Catholic rehab center trying to help a meth-addicted teen hustler.

"I do wonder a little," says the actress recently during a lunch break in rehearsals of the production, now in previews and opening July 30. "I wrote my friend the other day and asked if there was some reason why I am so immersed this year in matters of faith and redemption. Maybe I ought to take a good look at this, you know? I wouldn't mind having faith, solid faith. It might be nice."


"Oh, I don't know," she says. "I'll just let it evolve however it should. It's just an interesting exploration right now."

An Absolute World

The Oscar- and Tony-nominated actress has been exploring many sides of herself in the past few years. She made her formal directing debut staging "Crimes of the Heart" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2007, a production that transferred the following year to off-Broadway, where it was well-received. She teaches a course called "Practical Acting: Shut Up and Do It." After receiving kudos for playing Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on the road, in London and on Broadway, she returned to the stage earlier this year in a new solo show "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at the Philadelphia Theater Center, "and that pretty much was self-directed," she says.

"High" is a new challenge for her, playing a nun for the first time in her career in a juicy role as one outspoken sister.

Outspoken is an automatic adjective for the actress, who always has been seen as a no-nonsense, tart-tongued, stare-'em-down dame who knows who she is, even if you're not quite so sure. Her iconic film roles include, her sizzling debut in 1981's "Body Heat," followed by the tough-gal rival to Jack Nicholson in "Prizzi's Honor," the volatile pairings with Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito in "Romancing the Stone" and its sequels, the dimpled darling in John Waters' "Serial Mom" and the sultry-voiced Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

But in "High," she's telling a nun's story of faith.

Turner, the great-grandchild of a Methodist minister who was a missionary in China, grew up going to English-speaking Protestant churches in South America, London and other places where her family lived. (Her father was a U.S. diplomat.) "I was pretty much a broad-spectrum Protestant," she says.

"I've never played Catholic characters in my life before and suddenly I find myself studying about the religion and going to Mass and talking to priests and reading about the basic Catholic doctrine.

"One of the things about Catholicism that I keep running into is a sense of absolute," she says. "When in doubt, don't think. The church says this and that's all you have to know. Well, this goes against my nature but it is interesting that people subscribe to that."

Mention the patriarchy in the church and she elicits a deep growl.

"There's a scene I have in this play with a priest [played by Michael Berresse] and he says something to me and I respond by saying 'Are you pulling rank on me, Father?' And he says, 'I am a Catholic priest,' and there's nothing she can do."

Turner arches an eyebrow that says it all.

Working with Risk

After a 30-year career in film and on stage, Turner is not lacking for projects.

"To be an actress at 56 and to be working continually is no small thing."

She is frequently wooed to perform in the stage classics Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" and Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" are two recent offers "but it's not as interesting to me as developing new work, and the risk that comes with that."

"High" offered such risks, she says.

"This has some very dangerous edges to it,' she says. "My character has a very terrible and turbulent background before she chose this path, so there's some very raw behavior and emotions in it."

The show is written by Hartford-born, Wethersfield-raised Matthew Lombardo ( Hartford Stage's "Tea at Five," Broadway's "Looped") using his own former meth addiction as the basis of knowledge for the show.

The two-act play directed by Rob Ruggiero who, staged "Looped" on Broadway is a co-production with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which will present the show after its Hartford run. The show's commercial partners are eying New York after those engagements.

But a good script alone wasn't enough for her to say yes.

"I always meet with the director, the producers, people behind a project and even if I like the script if I don't like them, well, I'm too old to work with assholes anymore, OK?"

Turner liked Lombardo and Ruggiero when she met them.

"Part of it was their enthusiasm, which was so grabbing," she says. "And always, always intelligence. If they're smart, we can work together. Rob had really good insights into the motivations of the characters and Matthew was more than willing to discuss changes on how the script might grow and evolved."

Turner was also taken by Lombardo's personal story of being a former meth addict. (He is three years sober, he says.)

"We watched a film called 'Meth' the other day and I had nightmares that night," she says. "I think it's a miracle that Matthew got out of that."

Drugs In Hollywood

How did she survive the world of drugs in Hollywood?

"I would say I was nave, really,' she says. "I didn't grow up in [a drug environment]. Well, pot, sure, but everyone did pot. But for some reason I never really came in contact with [anything else]. There were kids who did but it never came my way. None of my friends did it.

"In Hollywood in the '80s there was a lot of cocaine happening. But I'll tell you what stopped me. There was this actor whom I was working with who one day did a really terrific scene, just brilliant work, and I went to him and told him I thought it was stunning. And he said, 'Yeah, goddamn it, I was high. But can I do it again without it?' That stopped me cold, because I realized the thing owns him. I don't want that kind of doubt, that kind of fear. I want to own what I do and know that I can do it again."

Turner says she personally relates to the power of rehab, referring to her own abuse, though not addiction, of alcohol. She says she was drinking heavily to relieve the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

"Honey, you cannot imagine the pain. I just had this knee replaced in November so that's nine operations in 12 years. This is not fun and living with chronic pain is really hard, mentally and as well as physically; maybe even more mentally. But I never missed a performance but I knew I was abusing alcohol Sunday nights and Mondays when I wasn't working.

"I promised myself after I finished [the Broadway stage version of the film] 'The Graduate' I would go to a rehab center because I didn't have a handle on it. It frightened me and it frightened my loved ones. So I went off to this place for two weeks and wow. One of the things I learned was that my life was nowhere that gone, thank god. And I do mean thank god because there were people there who had destroyed their loves and those of their families. I got a real good scare, I'll tell you that."

Can a person be addicted to faith?

"I'm sure you can," she says. "Now that's another can of worms, isn't it? It's the answer for everything for them, isn't it? But dangerous ground there, kiddo."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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