‘The Killing of Sister George’: that was then, this is now

A hit on Broadway and in London 50 years ago, “The Killing of Sister George” shows its age in the new production that just opened at Long Wharf Theatre.

The Frank Marcus original has been “adapted” by Jeffrey Hatcher, but the play’s attitude toward women, and lesbians in particular, is still rather retrograde.

“Sister George” follows a 50ish London radio actress, June Buckridge, who has become one of the most beloved characters on a popular soap opera (“Applehurst”) for her sunny disposition and the good works her character does in the small town where the show is set.

The central joke in the play is the stark contrast between Sister George on the radio and the vicious woman who plays her.

June lives with a younger woman, Childie, with whom she is in a master-slave, sado-masochistic relationship where June is the dominating force.

Although the piece is billed as “a naughty comedy” it is not easy to laugh at the spectacle of June grinding Childie under her thumb. We see the soap actress make her girlfriend get down on her knees and kiss the hem of her dress; watch as she forces Childie to eat one of her cigar butts (yuck!); and hear about the younger woman having to drink some of June’s bath water (double yuck!).

None of this stuff is funny, and because we never get to see the love between the two women, the lesbian partnership comes across as a mixture of the pathetic and the horrifying.

Indeed, the combination of the 1960s era English setting and Childie’s awful predicament often makes “The Killing of Sister George” look like that notorious shocker that Tallulah Bankead made in England during the same period (“Die! Die! My Darling!”)

While the play seems dated and never quite works, Long Wharf is serving up a beautiful production with great design elements from top to bottom (including costumes and wigs by two theater legends, Jane Greenwood and Paul Huntley).

Ironically, director-star Kathleen Turner has guided Clea Alsip as Childie, Betsy Aidem as BBC producer Mercy Croft, and Olga Merediz as a spiritualist neighbor to fine performances while seemingly not getting a handle on the character of June (or, at least not figuring out a way to make the rampaging soap actress into a character we really care about).

June is in a terrible situation, with her job threatened by rumors Sister George is about to be killed off, and her home life falling apart, but Turner plays the woman with such overbearing physical and emotional force that she is more frightening than sympathetic. And we never get a clue as to what Childie might see in her other than someone who financially supports her.

Turner is a terrific stage actress, who has always seemed especially adept at offbeat comedy, so her unvaryingly unpleasant take on June is surprising and disappointing. Perhaps the star will have time to add finer shadings to the characterization as she does more performances (Wednesday’s press opening came after only a week of previews).

(“The Killing of Sister George” is running through Dec. 23 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. For more information visit www.longwharf.org)

Joe Meyers