Killing of Sister George
PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE SOLAN PHOTOGRAPHY
The Killing of Sister George
Off-Broadway, TACT @ Beckett Theatre, Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd St.
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Fading British radio actress June Buckridge is a “devil when aroused,” says her lover Alice “Childie” McNaught, in TACT’s Off-Broadway revival of Frank Marcus’ serio-comic play The Killing of Sister George. It is the demons inside June, inside all of us, real or imagined, that haunt the character and the play, and it is this dissatisfaction, even horror, at our own secret desires and inner value, that this tight, incisive and smart production dramatizes so effectively. The Killing of Sister George was first produced to both acclaim and controversy in England in 1965 and on Broadway in 1966; this is the first New York revival of the original text of the play in 30 years. (A new adaptation of the work by Jeffrey Hatcher was presented at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, featuring Kathleen Turner, in 2012.) In press notes, TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) describes itself as a company that “reveals, reclaims and reimagines great plays of literary merit,” and, in this show, they live up to their promises.
The story revolves around June’s fears that the beloved character she plays on the popular 1960s BBC radio serial Applehurst, philanthropic, reliable, and upright Sister George, is about to be axed from the program. Drinking heavily, the middle-aged, loud, and rough-hewn June (Caitlin O’Connell), dependent on the public affection and approbation that Sister George provides her, often confusing the fantasy of the radio show with her own life, takes out her anxieties on lover Childie (Margot White), an alluring, fragile younger woman prone to dressing up as a girl and deeply connected to her collection of dolls. At times, the women’s sexual bond grows aberrant and rough, as June, jealous of her lover’s appeal to men, humiliates and beats Childie.
June seeks solace from eccentric neighbor Madame Xenia (Dana Smith-Croll), who tells fortunes and gives spiritual advice to the actress. But a visit from Mrs. Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), a BBC executive and herself the host of a longtime advice show on the radio, brings warnings about June’s off-stage behavior: she has recently drunkenly attacked nuns. Soon, June learns the worst: Sister George is about to be killed off in dramatic fashion, hit by a truck; an attempt to ratchet up the ratings on the old-fashioned Applehurst, struggling to remain relevant in an England caught up in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Childie, sensing that her identity as the paramour of a successful actress is about to change, shrewdly asks for help from Mrs. Mercy Croft, who, we see, will become her new benefactor, and, it is assumed, lover. When June, reeling from her firing, is offered a part as a cow on a new children’s program, her life finds its nadir.
The Killing of Sister George presents problems for a contemporary theater, probably the reason for its long absence from New York stages. The lesbianism of its central players was shocking and unusual in the 1960s, and played for full, lurid exploitation in the X-rated film version of 1968, which added a now-famous nude love scene. But in a 2014 culture where attitudes towards gay relationships are in the process of changing markedly, where the subject has become common, if not routine, on stage, and when the Politically Correct might decry the work’s irreverence, there are minefields and traps surrounding any new presentation of the piece. Here, instead of playing the lesbian angle down, hiding it, as it were, or playing it up, lampooning it and going for camp, director Drew Barr wisely and maturely plays it for real, straightforward and natural. The sexual sequences between June and Childie are calm and casual, done without leering. Mrs. Mercy Croft’s seduction of Childie is handled with a quietude that is both touching and startling. The sexual restraint removes our easy way out of the play, keeps us from using a handy political excuse to keep distant from the cleverly constructed dark comedy of the story, and the insidiously unnerving truths of the relationships. Without the superficial shock, the piece can be fully played, and felt. (And, it might be argued, that since the lesbianism is never mentioned overtly in the text, is shown clearly but never dwelt upon or even spoken of by the characters, the production is hewing closely to the original intentions of playwright Marcus.)
Instead of using gay identity as a metaphor for personal corruption, something likely made implicit during the original productions, the play’s theme is allowed to grow deeper, touching a more generalized human self-hatred: the need of all people to create an upstanding façade—our Sister George—something proper to show society to counter that lustful, petty, and selfishly demanding animal or “Devil” that lives inside us, disconcerting and discomfiting, making us perpetually doubt our personas as reputable, civilized citizens of the world.
The thoughtfulness and skill of the production’s interpretation allows us to experience in unclouded fashion the play’s stronger scenes. These include Act I, Scene II, June and Childie alone at home, wherein the loving quality of the women’s playfulness and care for each other quickly morphs into sado-masochistic punishment for the self-same happiness. And, in Act II, as the BBC, exemplified by Mrs. Mercy Croft, adjusts in cold and expedient fashion to the new, open ‘60s society, where definitions of Right and Wrong have softened, by changing its programs’ plots and attitudes to match the new day. This points up how June herself, a product of the Old Order, burning with rage at her own illicit desires, has become, like Sister George, obsolete.
The deemphasizing of the sexual angle has its occasional drawbacks, however minor. At the top of Act II, when June and Childie impersonate Laurel and Hardy and engage in jokingly throwing water at each other, June’s need to take the watery assault “like a man,” compulsive in the script, is tamped down. Similarly, Madame Xenia’s upset at being called a “brick,” misunderstanding the term to be a masculine definition, is shrugged off. Xenia’s super-femininity is minimized, only depicted in her hot pink dress and wig, but left out of her behavior. These moments, sharp on paper, register as blanks in the playing.
Barr’s movement of the actors is sometimes basic or even a little awkward, as they tend to upstage each other or themselves in the proscenium Beckett theater, a comfortable house that though so much better than the crummy theaters it replaced on NYC’s far west 42nd Theater Row, can seem somewhat like a school auditorium. But he and the actors maintain a sharp and flowing dramatic through-line, a feat that seems elementary but is, amazingly, sometimes left untended by plays on and off Broadway. The actors keep the ball up in the air for the entire two hours of running time, and pacing is excellent.
The performers themselves do fine work with tricky parts. Margot White as Childie, shines, alternately adorable, manipulative, and pathetic. Dana Smith-Croll’s Madame Xenia eschews the over-the-top possibilities and remains earthbound and affecting. Cynthia Harris, the longtime, respected veteran of stage and screen, is on-target as Mrs. Mercy Croft—locked into a self-image as a genteelly maternal presence, condescending, starchy, yet, in her protective move towards Childie, touchingly needy. In the most difficult role in the play, in many plays, Caitlin O’Connell as June has stature, bite, and an adroit comic approach. But the performance lacks the animal rage, the cruelty stemming from the base of June’s person, a brutish wrath the character cannot contain. This anger should keep the audience guessing as to whether, as Childie fears, June will eventually kill her lover, a suspense that propels the story into its final scenes. Here, June, while bothered and hurt, is essentially benign in her frustrations and we don’t dread the outcome.
The set by Narelle Sissons, a London apartment overcrowded with Childie’s dolls, shadowed by a huge ‘60s Paisley-style backdrop, can seem a little pushed. But, at the very least, it creates something large and expressive in the prosaic Beckett surroundings. The secret hero of the show is Daniel Kluger: his Music and Sound Design, from incidental songs to 1960s British radio programs, is brilliantly evocative.
In its production of The Killing of Sister George, TACT, and director Drew Barr, prove that the manner in which to tackle difficult, worthwhile pieces from the past is not to avoid it all together, or to disrespect the work by rewriting it, but to use subtlety and smarts, to dance through the raindrops. This method skips past the surface problems of the work, illustrating and embracing the play’s deeper levels. It propels June, Childie, and Sister George smoothly through the faded decades to today, giving them a modern currency, enabling us to laugh and cringe at their, and our, devils, ever-present.
Production Photos, PHOTO CREDIT: MARIELLE SOLAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. As an actor, Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club, and in regional theater. In 2014, he shot a featured role in the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Klavan saw Antony and Cleopatra while in central Illinois as the Visiting Playwright for the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland program at Heartland Theatre Company. Currently, he is curating new work at Emerging Artists Theatre. Currently, Klavan is directing the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, with a sold-out performance October 28 and an added performance on Friday, November 7, at 9 PM.