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Getting 'High' at the Repertory Theatre

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 17, 2010 - To be drugged, drunk, flying or heaven-bound -- experiencing any kind of high that soars above pain, suffering and other earthly constraints -- is the goal of a trio of characters in Matthew Lombardo's "High," presented by the St. Louis Repertory Theatre.

Like verbal bookends, the declaration, "I want to be high," is uttered by Sister Jamison Connelly (Springfield, Mo., native Kathleen Turner) in both her opening and closing monologues.

But getting to that state, and living apart from it, are problematic for Sister Jamison as well as Father Michael Delpapp (Michael Berresse) and 19-year-old addict Cody Randall (Evan Jonigkeit), whose trek is tangled up in rape, murder and drugs. But Cody's is just a worse-case scenario.

"We all suffer from some form of addiction," proclaims Father Delpapp.

At the priest's insistence, Sister Jamison struggles to counsel Cody after he's found in a hotel bed with a 14-year-old sodomized boy who died from an overdose, the likes of which didn't kill Cody.

With a heavy literary shovel, Lombardo heaps upon Cody every sort of childhood horror: pimping out his addicted mother at the age of 7, jabbing the needle into her arm to end her anguished cries, being raped repeatedly by a man she brought into his life, being blamed and thrown out of the house for the one attack she saw.

Embittered and empty, Cody rails against Sister Jamison, but she's no pushover: "I've had much bigger monsters than you" is practically the only sentence that leaves her lips without a string of curse words.

Movie and theater veteran Turner owns the stark black-and-white stage with her commanding presence and trademark husky voice. While the play is grim, it is also laugh-out-loud funny in places, especially when Turner delivers her zingers with perfect timing.

"Your postcards must be a riot," Sister Jamison notes dryly after Cody trips and falls over a long string of nonsensical words and phrases.

Cat-like, circling Sister Jamison with palpable suspicion, Jonigkeit also holds his own as the two spar against a backdrop that alternates between a black, star-studded night sky and just plain blackness.

As Cody, Sister Jamison and even Father Delpapp reveal their secrets, the audience almost dares not breathe, much less cough, for fear of missing a word. But the culmination of their confessions is a package wrapped up a little too neatly to have been created from the splattering messes of their lives.

At its core and at its close, "High" seems to be a story of resignation.

"Temptation, when you give into it, never ends well," Sister Jamison says.

And while "High" might not end happily, you're kind of sorry it has to end at all.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who covers theater, among other things, for the Beacon. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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