Need someone to play a potty-mouthed, ex-alcoholic nun? An abusive, alcoholic wife of a college professor? A washed-up, alcoholic writer?
Now add the character of June Buckridge, the cigar-chomping, gin-swilling, lesbian soap
"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
On Broadway she starred in "Indiscretions," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,"
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
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
"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
"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,
"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
Turner says she hopes to return to the Ivins show from time to time. "I can play her for years. She's my
A more intriguing idea she has is some day to play the title role in
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.