Need someone to play a potty-mouthed, ex-alcoholic nun? An abusive, alcoholic wife of a college professor? A washed-up, alcoholic writer?
Call Kathleen Turner, an actress who has made a career of hard-edged, in-your-face, booze-soaked roles.
Now add the character of June Buckridge, the cigar-chomping, gin-swilling, lesbian soap opera star in a new adaptation of the comedy-drama "The Killing of Sister George," which begins preview performances at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 28. (The production opens Dec. 5 and plays through Dec. 23.) Turner returns the theater where she starred in "Camille" in 1986.
"I'm seriously drawn to women like this character and it's beginning to be so damn obvious," says Turner.
It was the afternoon following the election and Turner is exhausted from staying up late. "I took off my watch so I wouldn't worry about the lack of sleep I would be getting," she says, propping her leg on a chair. A Nor'easter howls outside but inside the theater's concrete bunker, rehearsals plow on, this time with Turner not only as the show's star but its director.
At 58, the Oscar and Tony Award-nominated star has an impressive body of work on stage and screen. She made a sizzling screen debut in 1981's "Body Heat," followed by such films as "The Man with Two Brains," "Prizzi's Honor," "Romancing the Stone," "The War of the Roses," "Peggy Sue Got Married," and a memorable turn as the voice of Jessica Rabbit in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" But she has also starred in small-budget films such as "Serial Mom," "The Virgin Suicides and. Most recently, "The Perfect Family."
On Broadway she starred in "Indiscretions," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Graduate" and "High" but also played off-Broadway opposite drag actor-writer Charles Busch in "The Third Story" and on the road as populist journalist Molly Ivins and diva Tallulah Bankhead
Tough But Tender
When asked about how she came to play the character in "Sister George" she says, "What a giggle, no?"
The plot centers on a domineering actress who plays the character of a beloved village nurse on the radio soap opera "Applehurst," her much-younger, child-like lover, Childie and the radio executive, Mercy Croft, who comes between them as June discovers that her character is about to be killed off in the show.
"These women are very quirky and it's very funny and some of the behavior is so outrageous," says Turner, her low growl of a voice warming up considerably. "But I just think it's interesting because it's between women and that's less explored than the male-female power cliches and patterns."
Turner says her character is "a little crude, a little rough around the edges, but there's a tremendous amount of tenderness in the piece, too. It's sweet, ultimately. It reminds me a lot of John Waters' kind of work."
Turner starred in the 1994 film "Serial Mom," written and directed by Waters, known for his sometimes loopy, sometimes intimidating, sometimes shocking-yet-likable outsider characters who live their lives with their own sets of rules, which also describes Turner to a "T."
"What I've learned from working with John is that he creates these grotesques that you really care for and who are never actually malicious. They don't have evil, nasty, petty, little hearts. And that's George, see?"
Turner did a reading of the play last year and though she loved her character, she felt the script needed work. The estate of playwright Frank Marcus (who died in 1996 at the age of 68) gave the green light to bring in playwright Jeffrey Hatcher ("Ella," "Compleat Female Stage Beauty") to adapt the play — as long as it was true to the characters and Marcus' spirit of the work.
"[In the original 1964 play] the shock value was so great that these women were having a sexual affair and there wasn't much character work," she says.
Turner sought more from the relationships among the three leading characters as well as an additional plot development in the second half of the play "that showed the character of George fighting back."
The play, which premiered in London before moving to Broadway in 1966, was made into a sexually provocative 1968 film by director Robert Aldrich's starring Beryl Reid, recreating her stage role, Susannah York and Coral Browne. The film received an X-rating for its sexual explicitness — which is not in the play
"I never saw it; I never will," says Turner. "It's like… that damned '[Who's Afraid of] Virginia Woolf' film where you have two drunks screaming at each other. I never saw ['Virginia Woolf' play] that way. Did you see what I did in our [2005 Broadway] production? It was everything [I] hoped it would be — which [I] don't get to say very often. One of the reasons I got Edward [Albee] to let me do [the role] was because I told him no one's found the real comedy in this play, which is probably not the smartest thing to say because Edward directed [some productions]. But that's never been my strong point, I mean, tact. Well, that's me."
Turner says the film gives audiences a vague familiarity of a distant memory "but not a prejudice."
The new production marks the second high-profile play that Turner has directed, following her staging of a revival of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," first in 2007 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and then the following year off-Broadway. But this time out she is also doing double duty as the lead character in the production which also features Clea Alsip, Betsy Aidem and Olga Merediz.
Turner says she had no qualms about directing herself. "Truth to tell, over many years of doing this job you don't get that many great directors, so you either learn to direct yourself well or you just don't do the really great work that you might be able to do. [Directing] doesn't worry me. What worries me is being able to keep my eye on the whole thing, the big picture."
Despite the soap opera character's name, Sister George is a district nurse, not a nun. Turner says her run over the last two years of Catholic women roles — in the film "The Perfect Family" and in the short-lived Broadway play "High" (which had its world premiere at Hartford's TheaterWorks) — is over.
"Been there. Done that. Enough," she laughs. "I was going to get kicked out of that world anyway. In one of my last interviews [for the play] someone asked me, 'Are you Catholic?' I said, 'Let me be absolutely clear: Any organized religion — be it Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam — is my idea of man putting words in god's mouth.' You should have seen this guy's face."
In "High," written by Hartford-born, Wethersfield-raised Matthew Lombardo ("Looped," "Tea at Five") and directed by TheaterWorks' Rob Ruggiero, Turner played Sister Jamison Connolly, a tough-talking, recovering alcoholic nun who tries to help a young, gay meth addict.
"I really believed in the play," she says. "In city after city, show after show, people would come up and say, 'My mother, my son, my wife, my brother…' — all these stories pouring out from all these people about how destructive and powerful this addiction is to the point where I thought, 'Wow, we are in complete denial in this country about this thing."
Turner had high praise for Evan Jonigkeit, who played the young addict. But when asked if there's a chance she would return to the role, perhaps for a London production, she says no.
"The problem was the relationship with Matthew," she says of the playwright, who used his experience as a former meth addict in writing the play. "He wants what he wants and he wants it now. If you don't give it to him there's something wrong with you and he'll get you for it. It's a real addictive behavior. So ultimately it wasn't worth it personally to me and that's too bad."
Turner most recently returned to another role which she loves, that of outspoken Texas journalist Molly Ivins. Before starting rehearsals for "Sister George," Turner played a record-breaking run in Washington D.C. of her one-woman show "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," which she's played since 2010.
Turner, who supports Planned Parenthood and did a fundraiser for the New Haven organization, says Ivins would have been delighted by the election results. "What Molly always believed was that the American people always do the right thing ultimately. She also say that no matter what we do Americans have another job — as citizens."
Turner says she hopes to return to the Ivins show from time to time. "I can play her for years. She's my Mark Twain," she says, referring to the long-running solo show by actor Hal Holbrook depicting the American author. "She's always topical and it's a show that's easy to set up."
A more intriguing idea she has is some day to play the title role in William Shakespeare's "King Lear" "but I'll keep the daughters, not turning them into sons. And I'll make the Fool a woman because she's Lear's confidant. I love exploring women's relationships, what they do, and why."
THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE begins previews at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven on Wednesday, Nov. 28. The show opens Wednesday, Dec. 5 and plays through Friday, Dec. 23. Tickets are $40 to $70. Information: 203-787-4282 and http://www.787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.
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