'High' Takes Long Road To Broadway

The new play High stars Kathleen Turner, who's been with it since its first tryout in Hartford, Conn. How has the play has changed in three stagings across the country?

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How do you get to Broadway, not as an actor but as an entire play still trying to work out a few kinks? You could go to Hartford, Connecticut, and Cincinnati, Ohio, then maybe drop down to St. Louis, Missouri, and you wouldn't necessarily be lost.

That's the route that a new play called "High" took on the long road to Broadway. From St. Louis, Jim Dryden reports.

JIM DRYDEN: Kathleen Turner has appeared on Broadway as Mrs. Robinson in the stage adaptation of "The Graduate," Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." But with "High," Turner hopes to finally make it to Broadway as a character she created, Sister Jamison Connelly, a formerly homeless recovering alcoholic nun who works as a counselor at a Catholic rehabilitation center.

Ms. KATHLEEN TURNER (Actor): I've always wanted to develop more new work and add to the lexicon of theater, you know, not just take what has already been proven but to create a piece.

(Soundbite of play, "High")

Ms. TURNER: (As Sister Jamison Connelly) Sit down, let's chat.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Yo, look, lady. This is stupid. I mean, why do we gotta keep seeing each other if I don't want to get clean?

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) All right, first of all, you call me lady one more time and I will make you cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) Second, did I or did I not make it abundantly clear at our first meeting, I do not care what you want. So sit down. Let's get to work.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) But...

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) Shut the (BEEP) up.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) You creep me out when you do that.

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) Do what?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) When you swear, it's creepy.

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) Oh, too bad.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah? Well, you're a nun. Nuns don't swear.

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) And 19-year-old boys don't try to kill themselves.

DRYDEN: "High" opened in Hartford over the summer, and director Rob Ruggiero says in retrospect, that might not have been the best place to launch.

Mr. ROB RUGGIERO (Director, "High"): You know, you just want to kind of get it up and see what you have, see how the audiences respond. And the objective is to understand that so you can take it to the next step.

But having Kathleen Turner in Hartford, close to New York, it was a little less protected than we thought and rightfully so. People are going to come.

DRYDEN: Among those who came were two critics from the New York Times, but playwright Matthew Lombardo says the play wasn't ready for review because it wasn't even close to being finished.

Mr. MATTHEW LOMBARDO (Playwright, "High"): That's one of the reasons we take a play to regional theaters across the country before bringing it to New York because we're looking for that safe and comfortable environment where we can nurture our baby without critics coming in from New York or some of the big newspapers.

DRYDEN: One review was positive, the other mixed, but at that point in early August, Lombardo, Ruggiero and Turner weren't yet happy with the play, either, and Turner says it has been extensively reworked.

Ms. TURNER: In between Hartford and Cincinnati, we almost completely rewrote the second act. We got it down to just the last scene needed work.

(Soundbite of play, "High")

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) (Unintelligible). I couldn't handle it. I ran away.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) What did he tell you?

Ms. TURNER: (As Connelly) Nothing you don't already know.

DRYDEN: St. Louis was the third of three stops for the play over the past three months.

Mr. LOMBARDO: There's just certain things that you don't know that time will help you develop the play.

DRYDEN: Playwright Matthew Lombardo.

Mr. LOMBARDO: I've been dealing with clarifying the story arcs or deepening the characterizations. And there's just some things that you don't know in the first city that you find out in city number two or three.

DRYDEN: But you have to be careful about changing too much too soon, according to director Rob Ruggiero.

Mr. RUGGIERO: There's a certain point where you do have to leave it alone because if you react too quickly to things, the actors have no opportunity to get it in their bones, to make it work. So sometimes you could remove something of a great value. And we're at that point now where he might tweak, I might tweak, but we're about to let it alone.

DRYDEN: At this point, director, playwright and star say the script is pretty much finished. And Kathleen Turner says its development over the past three months on the road has been crucial to the creation of her character.

Ms. TURNER: Every bit of information I need, I should need and should have, should be in the script, though I have actually met a lot of ex-nuns in the last few months and been told by many people that they've met nuns exactly like this woman. Who knew?

DRYDEN: Turner, Lombardo and Ruggiero hope to open "High" on Broadway early next year.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Dryden in St. Louis.

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