By Frank Marcus; Directed by Drew Barr
Produced by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre)
Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 11.1.14
The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Dan Dinero on 10.7.14
Margot White and Cynthia Harris in The Killing of Sister George. Photo by Marielle Solan Photography.
BOTTOM LINE: While this play is of interest from an LGBT-history perspective, TACT’s production may not satisfy those looking for a thrilling night of theatre.
Anyone who has taken a course in the history of LGBT theatre or film has likely come across The Killing of Sister George. The 1968 film is probably the more famous, partly because of the “shocking” sex scene between two women that led to the film’s X-rating (and initial failure at the box office). TACT’s revival offers audiences the rare chance to see how Marcus’s play compares to the film (which has become something of a cult classic in the years since).
"Sister George” is a much-loved character of a British radio show, a sweet-talking nun who dispenses folksy wisdom, whizzes around on her motorbike, and nurses everyone in the fictional village of Applehurst back to health. Yet George is played by the butch June Buckridge, a woman who drinks and talks like a sailor, smokes cigars, and lives with her younger “companion” Alice. As the play begins, George (Buckridge has so lost herself in this role that everyone calls her George) begins to fear that she will be killed off (of the show). While she is initially reassured by Mrs. Mercy Croft, an executive from the station who may have an agenda of her own, George becomes increasingly despondent at the thought of her “demise,” and as the play goes on, we see her relationship with Alice begin to deteriorate.
While the film features the indelible Beryl Reid re-creating her Tony-winning performance, it has also been criticized for its somewhat unflattering portrayals of lesbians—as monstrous (George), babyish (Alice), predatory (Mercy), and all-around dysfunctional. In comparison, while the lesbianism in the play is integral to the characterizations, it is not a “problem” to be dealt with. For instance, Marcus is careful not to blame George’s “death” on the actor’s sexuality—if Sister George is being killed off, it is because George tends to walk off the set and get drunk in public, or because killing off a favorite character might boost the ratings.
Ultimately, I suspect that director Drew Barr’s desire to avoid the overtly negative stereotypes of the film (by presenting characters who “just happen to be lesbians”) might explain why TACT’s production feels somewhat lackluster. For example, Barr doesn’t seem to know what to do with the domination-submission scenes, like when George (Caitlin O’Connell) makes Alice (Margot White) eat a cigar butt—are these moments meant to be camp or serious? Barr and his company walk an uneasy middle ground. In fact, the tone often feels uneven; at times I felt each actor was in their own play, with some camping it up and others keeping it real (sometimes both in the same scene).
As another example of how laudable intent doesn’t always make for great theatre, in the film Mercy Croft is a smooth-talking, sophisticated woman who both shows Alice kindness and seduces her away from George. In this production we just get the kindness—Croft, as played by Cynthia Harris, comes off more as lovable grandmother, whose allure for Alice is never sexual, but only a sympathetic ear and a motherly embrace. While this choice prevents Mercy Croft from becoming the stereotypical “predatory lesbian,” it ultimately results in lowered stakes and a denouement that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Also hurting the dramatic tension is Narelle Sissons’ set design. So much of this play depends on the claustrophobia produced by a cramped, over-stuffed apartment. But this production takes place on a stage with no walls and plenty of space between the furniture. What is worse, Barr uses the aisles as the paths to other parts of the apartment, and fully lights the actors as they enter and leave. The cumulative effect is of a spacious abode where one can breathe easily, rather than a place where one is in danger of suffocation.
This is not to say there is nothing of value in TACT’s The Killing of Sister George. The script itself never loses interest, and as the play goes on, the cast (including Dana Smith-Croll as Madame Xenia, the psychic neighbor) works hard to get at the truth of each character. Indeed, the final scenes are especially effective. But by this point, all but the most devoted students of theatre- and LGBT-history may have lost interest.
(The Killing of Sister George plays at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through November 1, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are $59.25 and may be purchased on www.telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. For more information visit tactnyc.org.)