The Killing of Sister George
Directed by and starring Kathleen Turner. Through Dec. 23 at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org
By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Les Waters. Through Dec. 22 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of York and Chapel streets, New Haven. (203) 432-1234, yalerep.org
Two plays about feisty middle-aged women and their not-quite lovers. One is fiction, though its plot is inspired by a real-life incident in which a beloved radio soap opera character was abruptly kicked off the air. The other is non-fiction and essentially plotless, based on actual correspondence between two Pulitzer-prize winning poets who die slowly of ennui. Both are set in the mid-20th century and take a few cues from the artistic revolutions going on around them.
The Killing of Sister George was a rather nervy play when first written. In some ways, it's a conventional British comedy about a loud boozy malcontent, her wild friends and neighbors, and her strict, fearsome boss. Playwright Frank Marcus supplied the comedy with some social relevance when he gave lesbian overtones to the relationship between the lead character, June Buckridge and her younger, submissive roommate Childie.
Marcus (who died in 1996) was a prolific playwright whose output ranged from comedies to dramas to children's plays to adaptations of provocative German works by Schnitzler and Kaiser. Now being adapted himself, Marcus' best-known script has been placed in the capable hands of Jeffrey Hatcher, a writer of similar range and stage savvy whom Long Wharf audiences know for his better-than-the-genre-usually-gets script for the biomusical Ella, about Ella Fitzgerald.
This time the star name Hatcher has to fit dialogue to is not a play's subject but its star, Kathleen Turner, who commissioned the rewrite and both directs and stars in the results.
The three-act play has been reshaped to the two-act format today's audiences are accustomed to. It's a much cleaner version than the misguided 1964 film version, which ramped up the lesbian aspects of the play enough to rile film censorship boards but not enough to make a coherent point. Unlike the film's director Lukas Heller, adapter Hatcher and this production's director/star, Kathleen Turner, remember that this is supposed to be a consistent comedy.
They don't necessarily remember that it's a British comedy, but that's OK. Both Turner, who plays Buckridge with a vulnerable bluster reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams heroine, and Alsip (infamous in Connecticut theater for her miscasting as a Puerto Rican character in The Motherfucker With the Hat last year at TheaterWorks) enhance or drop their accents seemingly based on whatever voice might get the bigger laughs. There are numerous examples of depths unplumbed — superficial characterizations, underproduced excerpts from the radio serial on which Buckridge appears ("Applehurst," based on the still-running BBC Radio 4 institution The Archers), and a conscious lessening of the now-dated lesbian elements. Mostly, these are in service of a sturdier, brisker-moving comedy, but you can feel the lack of detail.
Still, there's also something comfortable and reassuring about the Long Wharf doing an abrasively comic British script about an awkward relationship. Such shows were the hallmark of Arvin Brown, the theater's Artistic Director from the late 1960s into the mid-1990s. In that vein, The Killing of Sister George comes off somewhere in between Brown's 1992 production of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular and his 1996 staging of Noel Coward's A Song at Twilight.
The Killing of Sister George is best enjoyed as a traditional summer-stock style show of yore where a beloved celebrity (the formidable Turner, last seen onstage at the Long Wharf in Pam Gems' feminist rewrite of Camille in 1987) gets to do as she wishes while fans and castmates fawn. It could choose to be more challenging, but it doesn't really need to be.
The Yale Rep faces adaptation and presentation challenges of a much different kind with its world premiere of Dear Elizabeth. Subtitled "A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again," it assembles the famed poets' decades of friendly correspondence into an appealing narrative. Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose writing is usually spare, has lately (with this show, as well as her last Rep premiere, an adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters) behaved more like a dramaturg or concept-wrangler than like the playwright-provocateur whose career was established with modern-issue dramas such as The Clean House and The Vibrator Play. Working again with director Les Waters (who directed the Yale productions of Ruhl's Eurydice and Three Sisters) means that extragavant staging ideas can be vividly realized with unrestrained visual spectacle. The room floods. Lowell climbs up to the moon.
These are worthwhile interruptions, since this is a script assembled from amiable yet meandering letters from dear friends whose desires for each other, if they actually had any, never went anywhere. Elizabeth Bishop, played with stoic grace by Mary Beth Fisher, sniffs at Lowell's laments about his three wives, while he (portrayed by Jefferson Mays with a natural flair for academic rumpled-ness) commiserates at the suicide death of her lover Lota de Macedo Soares.
The poets spent their lives and careers in different cities, different continents even, which makes for some delightful letters. Dear Elizabeth keeps them in close proximity, reading their own letters aloud and tsk-ing at each other's admissions of misdoings or feelings of low self-esteem.
The conceit could get tiresome for some — I personally enjoyed the constant creativity of director Waters and the technical designers (a mix of pros who worked on Ruhl's Eurydice and current Yale School of Drama students) — but you certainly can't say the show misrepresents itself. It is a "play in letters," as advertised, illustrated with special effects and abrupt gestures, but most appealingly with sidelong glances and coy chuckles.
Both The Killing of Sister George are appealing relationship stories where the relationships are less important than the art and culture which ignites them. Neither ends particularly happily, but you certainly won't leave the theaters depressed.
Clea Alsip and Kathleen Turner in The Killing of Sister George. (T. Charles Erickson photo)