The Killing of Sister George

Newspaper Review

Richard Green – Talkin Broadway, July 15, 2015

Something is rotten in the village of Applehurst, a fictional town on BBC radio. Ratings are down for the daytime drama, and someone in Applehurst has got to take a hit for the team.

That’s the set-up for Frank Marcus’ backstage comedy from 1964, centered on a radio show that strives to make its listeners feel warm and fuzzy, with tales of modern problems tidied up with good old homespun wisdom. However, that audience is shrinking, and the mood of at least one of the cast members turns as dark and stormy as “Wuthering Heights” or “Jane Eyre,” as rumors swirl.

Gothic romance seems like a perfect analogy in this strange case, involving a radio celebrity and her double life, and the great and powerful BBC, where every threat casts a long, dark shadow, and charm and breeding are ultimately put to the sword. And yet, this dark melodrama also comes with a lot of rueful laughs, thanks to a great director and cast.

The fictional Sister George is a beloved, hymn-singing countryside nurse in “Applehurst.” But all the goodness of actress June Buckridge seems to be poured into playing her. What’s left, after six years in the role, is the worst of humanity: an exasperated kind of Heathcliff/Rochester rage, brought home here by the great Lavonne Byers (who resembles Faye Dunaway more than once, in the “wire hangers” scene from Mommie Dearest). As Ms. Buckridge, she takes the hidden, tangy wretchedness of this worried radio star and makes it strangely delicious, with the help of director Brooke Edwards.

It’s funny for another reason, too: Ms. Byers is said to have recently passed on a role in the female version of The Odd Couple. And now here she is on stage with actress Shannon Nara (as Alice “Childie” McNaught) in something strangely similar—though perhaps a thousand times more complex and clever. And, therefore, far more suited to her abilities as one of the two or three preeminent actresses in town.

It is strongly implied that Alice is June’s lesbian lover, and their scenes together are comical, in the sense that two people can know each other entirely too well after years and years. There are some genuinely awful moments in the relationship, but their little dance before a costume party is just wonderful; and this may be the first time I’ve ever seen Ms. Byers in anything like a tender love scene in the last 30 years (though that moment on a sofa only lasts about 30 seconds). She would probably be the “Oscar” character, to Ms. Nara’s “Felix.”

Still, “Oscar” and “Felix” are terribly misleading labels—one character’s up and controlling one minute, and then down in the gutter the next, making for a great see-saw action. And, for the sake of dark comedy and genuine psychological intrigue, they’re both complete basket cases. Maybe having a female director gives them all the freedom they need to explore a tremendous amount of invisible emotional terrain on stage, which they do. Rarely are lovers’ relationships dissected with such exacting care.

And yet it’s a relationship fraught with ghastly rituals and threats that further embellish the gothic aspect, though in many ways their pairing is full of kindness and love, too. Things come to an inevitable breakdown, but even then the characters (and the actresses playing each one) stand just as well on their own, in that moment, as when they’re so perfectly intertwined.

Cooper Shaw just about steals every scene she’s in, as the wonderfully wacky fortuneteller who lives downstairs. She and Ms. Nara provide a lot of sunshine, to balance out the other two ladies’ calculated contest of wills. You always think you can rise above something as obvious as the sly Slavic accent and a mystical, antic disposition of a Madam Xenia—but she cracked me up every time. Never underestimate a great comedic mind like Ms. Shaw’s.

Erin Kelley is both delightful and imposing as a BBC exec, who has her own “sob-sister” advice program on the air each week. She uses her sympathetic skills to deliver various bits of bad news for Ms. Buckridge along the way. It’s made funny in the dry English sense, because all her gentle warnings are delivered with a commanding little lilt in her voice, and a manner as crisp as Carr’s Table Water Crackers. And her mod Carnaby Street hats (along with Ms. Nara’s swinging get-ups) are an added highlight of the evening, thanks to costumer Cyndi Lohrmann.