Smart Production of The Killing of Sister George Focuses on Human Nature, Not Sexuality

Jul 15, 2015 at 8:06 am
The Killing of Sister George. - ProPhotoSTL/Peter Wochniak
ProPhotoSTL/Peter Wochniak
The Killing of Sister George.

The Killing of Sister George caused quite the scandal in 1965 London for its outright portrayal of a lesbian relationship. What's interesting in 2015 is not the lesbian part, but the relationship part: Radio soap star June Buckridge and her "flatmate" Alice McNaught never get more romantic than a little slap 'n' tickle, after all. What's left of their shared passion are small comforts, bickering and the petty annoyances that accrete over seven years together.

Whether it's because of the mid-'60s mores that forbade prurience on stage or Marcus' honest depiction of human nature, director Brooke Edwards has crafted The Killing of Sister George into a production that feels far ahead of its time. It offers stark depictions of a souring relationship, an aging star and the uncanny way our jobs define ourselves that just happen to have lesbians at its core. It's also wickedly funny.

Of course, all of this insight wouldn't be so easy to apprehend if not for Lavonne Byers' electrifying portrayal of June as a cranky clenched fist ready to push in every face that gets too close. Stomping across stage in her tweeds and sensible shoes, June -- or, as she prefers, "George" -- guzzles gin and chews through cigars so rapidly it's a wonder she doesn't breathe flame by night's end.

click to enlarge The cast of The Killing of Sister George: Shannon Nara (Childie), Erin Kelley (Mercy), Lavonne Byers (June) and Cooper Shaw (Madame Xenia). - ProPhotoSTL/Peter Wochniak
ProPhotoSTL/Peter Wochniak
The cast of The Killing of Sister George: Shannon Nara (Childie), Erin Kelley (Mercy), Lavonne Byers (June) and Cooper Shaw (Madame Xenia).

June, incongruously, plays the role of beloved country nurse Sister George in the long-running BBC serial radio drama Applehurst. After six years, she suspects the producers are about to kill off her character for a ratings bump and to showcase younger stars. She feels cornered and betrayed and doesn't know how to fight back, so she takes it out on Alice (Shannon Nara) with cruelty, abrupt demands and jokes at Alice's expense.

Alice, or "Childie" as George calls her, is a younger woman who dresses in the colorful fashions of the day, loves her dolls and is very much subservient to George. So much so that when Alice mouths off, George forces her to her knees and makes her eat last night's cigar butt as punishment, all without laying a hand on her.

While George is the blustering hurricane that forces you to keep a wary eye on her, Childie has an unsettling sadness that draws your attention in subtle ways. What makes her bend to George's tyrannical demands so willingly? How can she stand up for herself and then apologize in the same sentence? Nara plays her as something more than a punching bag; Childie has a penitent's sorrowful gaze when George disciplines her, as if the humiliation is just what she deserves.

George and Childie's turbulent relationship is tested by the frequent visits of Mrs. Mercy Croft (Erin Kelly), one of the Applehurst producers. In Mercy, costumer Cyndi Lohrmann has found her muse. Dressed in BBC-approved conservatively cut women's suits and coordinating gloves, Mercy crowns each outfit with an increasingly large hats -- and the bigger they get, the more the power shifts in her favor. Kelly's upper lip is stiff, her back makes ramrods look crooked, and she's unfailingly polite as she doles out reprimands, punishments and the ultimate decision on Sister George's fate. Is it any wonder that Childie expresses a more than casual interest in this powerful and courteous disciplinarian?

That fate is foretold in the show's title. Sister George and June Buckridge are symbiotes, each intricately tied to the other after all the years, and there's a real fear -- verbally expressed by Alice, and tacitly displayed by George's spiral into all-night drunken rages -- that the death of one is the death of both.

What sort of afterlife exists for an over-the-hill, unemployed butch actress? As the lights dim and June -- now just June -- drains another bottle, the answer rings out just before the darkness takes her. It's not what you think; the BBC might have killed George, but June lives to fight (and drink and smoke and swear) another day.

The Killing of Sister George Written by Frank Marcus. Directed by Brooke Edwards. Through July 26 at the Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $30 to $35. Call 314-795-8778 or click here.