Dealing as it does with the collision of faith, family and drug abuse, there is no escaping the melodramatic elements in Richmond Triangle Players’ latest production, “High.” Even so, playwright Matthew Lombardo does an admirable job of infusing sparks of originality and interesting plot devices into his script.
That is, he does except when he doesn’t. Too often, the play’s more engaging elements are offset by clunky language and overwrought complications. The result ends up a bit like a movie-of-the-week on steroids, a new take on a standard-issue drug abuse drama pumped up with a couple of good performances and a surprise or two.
One such surprise is the ongoing development of Kyle Cornell as a serious actor. Since creating a thoughtful, three-dimensional version of the grown-up Charlie Brown in Firehouse Theatre’s “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” three years ago, the VCU graduate hasn’t been featured in anything very meaty around town.
In “High,” he plays Cody Randall, a 19-year old with an impossibly abusive past who lands in the office of Sister Jamison ‘Jamie’ Connelly (Melissa Johnston Price) after a near-fatal overdose. Complicating Cody’s case are the 14-year old runaway who was found dead with him and his mysterious relationship with the priest, Father Michael (Jonathan Hardison) who assigns Sister Jamie his case.
Cornell never goes overboard portraying a character that has to travel from dead-eyed sullen teen to hysterical junkie back to tragically confused child. The role demands an emotional and physical subtlety that Cornell largely masters, inviting both empathy and disdain as his sordid past is revealed.
The central character here, however, is Sister Jamie and director George Boyd has wisely cast Richmond luminary Price in the role. Sister Jamie embodies the best of this play: not matching any stereotype of a nun, she’s profane, sarcastic highly fallible, and recovering from her own addiction. In direct monologues to the audience, Sister Jamie relates her tragic past so we know just why this case represents such a challenge to her and Price convincingly takes us into this dark back-story.
Unfortunately, the play saddles Price with some standard “How did that make you feel?” dialogue along with Jamie’s quips and rejoinders. The character’s invocation of the conversion of St. Augustine is clever but it is forgotten before long in repeated assertions that Cody’s actions represent “his addiction talking.” Her tete-a-tetes with Father Michael start out nicely attenuated but, as the play progresses, they are increasingly forced into more frantic territory.
Hardison ends up being a bit of third wheel as the hapless priest caught in Cody’s tangle. One part passionate cleric, one part unwitting dupe, Hardison never quite reconciles these different aspects of the character and he gets little help from Lombardo’s script.
Boyd and his team have outfit the production simply but effectively. Set designer T. Ross Aitken and lighting designer Michael Jarett work in tandem to transform the play’s principle setting, Sister Jamie’s office, into other locations with only subtle changes in the projections seen through the office window.
In many scenes, this production defies expectations and captures moments of authenticity. “High” often soars before being snagged in the quicksand of melodrama.
“High” runs through March 15th at Richmond Triangle Players Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue. Go to rtriangle.org or call 346-8113 for tickets and information.