TACT/The Actors Company Theatre’s revival of “The Killing of Sister George” is only halfway successful, but not necessarily because the material is “dated,” whatever that vague term may mean.
Like all works of art, Frank Marcus’ 1965 play is, of course, an artifact of its time. A hit in London and on Broadway, then a film, the story was certainly novel. At center are three lesbian characters whose homosexuality is depicted as neither tragic nor depraved; in fact, they all seem completely unquestioning of each other’s sexual inclinations. This separates it from earlier plays such as Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” where the possibility that a character is a lesbian is assumed to be horrifying to all concerned.
At the center of the story is mannish, tough-talking June “George” Buckridge (Caitlin O’Connell),forty-something star of a long-running radio serial. June’s radio character is “Sister George” and we learn almost immediately that June is fearful that her character will be killed off. Sister George, a bromide-spouting, motorbike-riding nun, is widely beloved, but ratings have been slipping.
June is an experienced actress, all business and reasonably professional in the studio, but has apparently gotten into some off-set trouble. Her long time live-in girlfriend Alice “Childie” McNaught (Margot White) is a bit odd, not just girlish but childish, possibly even a little simple-minded. June’s harsh domination of Alice is a key part of their relationship, both routinely and erotically.
The action takes place entirely in their apartment. The set, by Narelle Sissons, is nicely cluttered with Alice’s collection of dolls and doll furniture, and features a large 60s-style backdrop, the result being much like an oversized kindergarten.
The drama moves into gear when June’s boss, Mrs. Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), drops by to discuss the aforementioned off-set trouble. June was out with “some of the boys” (i.e. at a women’s pub), got quite drunk, barged into an occupied cab containing two novitiate nuns (i.e. underage girls), and “proceeded to assault the two nuns, subjecting them to actual physical violence.” June explains: “It was they who attacked me. I remember getting all entangled in their skirts and petticoats and things…the taxi driver had to pull me free…” And now the Mother Superior has complained, demanding an apology, and possibly a payoff.
This is where things get dicey for the modern audience. Not because the characters are archetypically butch and femme, or because their actions are implausible–Marcus, to his credit, has created real people, not just clichés–but because after a while it starts to feel like this is the sum of his perspective on what it might mean to be a homosexual, apparently holding to the old idea that sexual inversion is a species of arrested development.
Because of this, being in the room with them for a couple of hours can be stifling, self-accepting though they may be. (We’ve used the limited vocabulary of the time in this review to give a sense of it.)
The writer’s narrowness of view is a temporary problem, of course. As the play’s historical moment recedes from memory, we will once again read the story for what the characters are, rather than what they aren’t. On the other hand, the same kind of claustrophobia exists in the work of Tennessee Williams, though the latter digs deeper to find the root causes beneath the limitations, pain, and just plain weirdness of his people.
That may provide a clue as to why the current production of “Sister George” doesn’t quite come to life. As June, Ms. O’Connell gives us a powerhouse and a monster of ego, but she fails to communicate that what lies beneath is a monster of neediness. Perhaps the idea was to avoid making June pathetic, but it’s as integral to June as it is to Blanche du Bois. It’s possible that this is part of director Drew Barr’s conception of the piece, but it flattens the character.
There are similar missing layers in Alice and Mercy. Alice is in her thirties but acts as if she’s twenty. Ms. White does a very good job of showing us how a twenty-year-old behaves, but so much so that we forget that Alice is really too old to be acting like this. As a result, each time a reference is made to her long relationship with June it’s just slightly confusing.
Cynthia Harris presents Mrs. Mercy effectively as a formidable antagonist to June, with equivalent and convincing toughness; but when Mercy tries to turn Alice’s head in her direction, she must present a credible sexual threat beneath the pretense of quasi-maternal interest, and that’s entirely missing. It appears that Mercy’s attempt to seduce Alice away from June is simply malicious, rather than that Alice is an attractive toy that Mercy herself expects to enjoy playing with. This lack of even a hint of lecherousness keeps the last act from heating up as it needs to.
Possibly more important, June and Alice don’t really feel like they’ve lived together for seven years, they don’t have the kind of casual comfort with each other’s space that might communicate that. That discomfort sometimes extends to the way they move through the cluttered set, not like they’re used to it but that they have to be careful of it.
On the other hand, the couple of times when they really lay hands on each other are outstanding – the best moment in the production comes when it appears that June is trying to do Alice real harm, but Alice interprets it (correctly) as foreplay, and the reversal made the audience gasp. If that level of vulnerability cheek-by-jowl with actual hostility were present throughout, this might work.
That the actors’ individually well-considered performances are not working together suggests that director Barr is not connecting to the material, or that his vision of what the play should look like is taking precedence over how the characters interact.
On the technical side, special credit is due the sound design of Daniel Kluger. There are several sequences which feature radio broadcasts, and also some interstitial loops, all of which were exceptionally well done.
In sum, this revival is an interesting experiment but it reveals that if you’re going to do the play at all, you have to throw caution to the winds, without being embarrassed by or trying to compensate for the limitations of the period.
“The Killing of Sister George” (through November 1, 2014)
TACT/The Actors Company Theatre
The Beckett Theatre @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://tactnyc.org/the-killing-of-sister-george-2/
Running time:two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.