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Altitude Sickness: The Rep, and director Rob Ruggiero, aren't quite up to High 

Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High.

Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Kathleen Turner and Evan Jonigkeit in High.

As the lights rise, a woman stands alone under a starry sky and begins to talk to the audience. Initially we don't realize the import of her speech, but Sister Jamison's recollection of those halcyon days when she read stories to her beloved younger sister might be the only completely gentle scene of the entire evening. As soon as this social-worker nun, a recovering alcoholic, strives to rehabilitate a drug-addicted teenage street hustler, Matthew Lombardo's new play, High, which is currently on view at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, becomes a litany of debasement: child prostitution, rape, murder. The raw production strives mightily to shock and surprise its audience. Yet when the tumultuous evening is over, the biggest surprise of all might be how little you've actually felt.

High isn't really a play at all; it's a contraption in the guise of drama. The symmetrically tidy evening is split into two fifty-minute halves that adhere to a rote formula. Start with a few laughs, then get serious. Along the way, toss in a few obligatory revelations, reversals and red herrings. And so a story that wants to startle us instead feels predictable. In the first scene, for instance, when Sister Jamison is assigned to the case of a deeply disturbed teen who might or might not be a killer, of course initially she must refuse. In the history of theater, has there ever been a social worker who wanted to take a case?

Once the sessions between reluctant therapist and unwilling patient begin, the story moves to the next plateau: comfortable confrontation. Kathleen Turner's brusque, bullying nun makes The Miracle Worker's Annie Sullivan look like the amateur she was. Turner can slide down a condescending line like, "Oh, little boy," with the ease of an Olympic skier on a freestyle slalom course. As her misbegotten teenage charge, the angular Evan Jonigkeit seems to have channeled his performance through the prism of early Eric Roberts films — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that he needs to be allowed to do more than that if we are to care for him. But a gadget like High is more concerned with effect than cause. As Act One winds down, let's toss in some male nudity. It's trendy and will give people something to talk about at intermission.

David Gallo's intriguing scenic design visualizes the play's slickness. Set on a shiny black Formica floor, two sliding office doors provide entryways into the minds of our protagonist and antagonist. The doors are so sensitively illuminated by John Lasiter, it's just possible that the lighting designer understands High's potential more clearly than does its author.

Had Lombardo's literary agent submitted High to the Rep cold, no way would it have received a main-stage production. Director Rob Ruggiero brought it to the Rep as a package, complete with a female star (and, surely, the potential of future royalties). Ruggiero has directed four shows at the Rep and received four Kevin Kline Awards. With a track record like that, the Rep would have been downright ungrateful to pass on this deal. But Ruggiero has not yet extracted a complete and uncompromising script from Lombardo. Although the playwright wants us to know that this story is drawn from his own personal experience, he has not yet been ruthless enough with himself. Instead of revelations, we get showtime. Instead of introspection, we get a series of presentational speeches, which are a form of dramatic evasion.

Many years ago, when another young writer decided to drop out of a New York theater workshop rather than allow her play (which she deemed too revealing) to be performed, Edward Albee told her, "Do you know what a playwright is? A playwright is someone who lets his guts hang out on the stage." Anatomy parts are hanging out on the Rep stage, but not guts.

Not yet.

Click here for a link to St. Louis stage capsules.

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