The Killing of Sister George opened with much anticipation at The Long Wharf Theatre with Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Frank Marcus’s controversial 1964 play. Hatcher, along with director Kathleen Turner, aimed to “delve deeper into the relationship between the women at the core of the story” because today’s audiences are more accepting about homosexual relationships.
They got that last part right, but there is more that could be done to update a black comedy that’s a soap opera within a radio soap opera. The three main characters, actress June Buckridge/Sister George (Turner), her partner, Alice (“Childie”) McNaught (Clea Alsip) and BBC executive Mrs. Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem) are parts any actress worth her salt would want to play. They are all rich, with layer upon layer of suppressed emotions and dark secrets. The fourth character, Madame Xenia (Olga Merediz), is a stock charlatan clairvoyant, who adds comic relief.
In a nutshell, the play is about a middle-aged actress who finally achieved fame six years earlier when she got the part of Sister George, a tough love, no-nonsense moped driving district nurse on “Applehurst.” Listeners love her. Professional nurses love her. June has received numerous awards including Personality of the Year. But listeners get bored, ratings dip slightly, and she fears that “there may be a stone in that churchyard” waiting for her. To make matters worse, a year earlier she got plastered and assaulted two nuns in a taxi cab. She alternately claims that she thought they were bats or red-eyEd White mice who bit and scratched her and that she needed treatment for shock. Mrs. Croft insists that she write a letter of contrition and make a sizable contribution to a charity supported by their Mother Superior. “So I am to humble myself?” asks June.
That part of June is easier for audiences to accept than the way she dominates and humiliates the gentle, sensitive Childie. She shows only occasional tenderness to her. When Mrs. Croft, in her all-business demeanor, warns her about her job, June remains belligerent. This is puzzling. June is an actress. Life, as she knows it, will change drastically. Why isn’t trying to act “nicely” and trying to butter up Mrs. Croft? A little groveling might even be in order. As June/George, Turner takes no prisoners, and this one-dimensional approach is a missed opportunity to reveal her character’s vulnerabilities and insecurities.
Alsip and Aidem understand the complexities of their characters. Childie is 34-year-old woman who plays with dolls as a substitute for the baby she had and gave up at 18. Although bruised and emotionally immature, she is strong enough to avoid being June’s prisoner. The moment she thinks she can find someone else to take care of her, she will make that break with June. Alsip skillfully combines this savviness with a sweet purity. Aidem deftly balances Mrs. Croft’s corporate ruthlessness with her character’s secret life, which includes a strong hint of her own lesbianism and a pied-a-terre in London to hide her activities.
And that’s the best part of the play –- the masks worn by the characters, both onstage and off. The faux clairvoyant knows it’s all an act, and Merediz plays it effortlessly. “I never sleep,” Madame Xenia says. “What am I going to do? Dream for free?” She puts on a better act than June. Offstage, the Mother Superior’s tenacity for the donation makes her a viable candidate for the patron saint of the Kardashians. So much for turning the other cheek.
Theatre begs for change, for reinterpretation. The Killing of Sister George was a trailblazer in its time. This critic would welcome another revision by Hatcher and, perhaps, a sequel. Soap operas, although sometimes marginalized and scoffed at, are still important to people. Think: Susan Lucci with one of the highest TVQ’s in history and Downton Abbey. Recently, daytime actress, writer and producer JoAnna Johnsonannounced that she is gay. She explained that she couldn’t come out of the closet before because she was afraid she wouldn’t be employable. The veteran of The Bold and The Beautiful explained that viewers have a more intimate connection with the characters on daytime TV.