|‘Sister George’ Reinvented|
|From Spectator Magazine
February 24, 1983
Though generally maligned as an offensive and nasty character, Sister George is in fact the only multifaceted woman in the [play]. The honesty and openness of her character… make George the more complete human being. — Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet
The idea of a local production of The Killing of Sister George did not seem promising. Memories of the well-known film version came unpleasantly to mind. Happily, the stage play proved to be quite different from the film, and on the whole much better. This, added to a few directorial changes in emphasis, made the Durham Theatre Guild’s production of Sister George successful and memorable.
The stage play, by Frank Marcus, is not really what you might have expected. It is no lurid expose of “the twilight world of women without men,” or some such paperback drivel. Lesbian relations are a condition of the play, not its subject. Sister George really has more in common with Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and other British plays of the period, than it has with, say, Boys in the Band.
This mistaken impression is understandable when it is remembered that the sensational film version was produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, best known for such subtle examinations of human relations as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. In the film, a character shouts at George: “Look at yourself, you pathetic old dyke!” No such like appears in Frank Marcus’ script. In the play, and especially under John Younger’s direction, Sister George is neither old nor especially pathetic.
The Killing of Sister George concerns June Buckridge, a rotund, middle-aged actress who for the past six years has played “Sister George,” a saintly country nurse, on a popular BBC radio serial. She has, in fact, become so identified with the part that even she herself is becoming confused. Everyone calls her George, and she drops into her homey country accent at frequent intervals. But no one in the world could be more different from June Buckridge than Sister George, and June’s confusion and frustration with this fact are increasingly bursting forth in drunken displays of temper and occasional sadism.
June lives with Alice McNaught, a charming and attractive 34-year-old woman, who is nevertheless very insecure and selfish. In the early part of the play, Alice has all the sympathy and June seems a terror. But by the end of the second act, it is June who appears sympathetic and Alice has revealed herself to be a disloyal and cunning opportunist.
The ratings on the radio serial are slipping, and so the higher-ups have decided to boost audience interest by gruesomely killing off the series’ second-most popular character: Sister George. (She is to be hit, while riding her moped on an errand of mercy, by a ten ton truck.) That the actress playing the part has become increasingly temperamental makes the decision even easier.
Faced with the loss of her meal-ticket, Alice makes a successful play for another woman, a powerful executive at the BBC. She creates sympathy for herself with this woman by painting a very vivid portrait of just how bad June’s temper can be; at the same time, without giving it a thought, she is seriously damaging June’s chances of getting any sort of good role with the BBC in the future.
In the third act, June attempts to adjust to the loss of Sister George and the desertion of Alice. Neither adjustment comes easily. “George and I have parted company. And do you know,” she says,” I’m glad to be rid of the silly bitch. Honestly.” The final moments of the play find her alone in her apartment, practicing for the only part currently available to her: “Clarabelle Cow” on a children’s series called “Toddler Time.” Frank Marcus’ script calls for a “plaintive, heart-rending” sound. But, in this production, June’s final moos were humorous and brave: come what may, she’ll be ready for it.
On both the London and New York stages and in the film, June/ George was played by Beryl Reid, an actress then in her late fifties or early sixties. This casting gave a “May- December” quality to the story which wasn’t in the script; it was clear that Alice was June’s last chance at a relationship. By casting an actress much younger, and closer to the author’s description of “middle-aged,” John Younger puts June’s future in a much more hopeful, and appropriate, light. Although Sister George is dead, June is not and there’ll be other jobs, other relationships. Further, by casting a young actress as the downstairs neighbor Madame Xenia (the script calls for an elderly woman), the implication is made that June has a new special friend right next door.
As June, Carolyn Fitz-Simmons did very well. She managed to convey the character’s strength without ever resorting to anything excessively mannish. Never in her performance did she come across as the stereotypical bull-dyke. She managed not one, but two British accents (one city, one country for Sister George) quite nicely. She, at times, seem a little hesitant with some or her speeches, but that is all. On the whole, she found a great deal in June that was sympathetic and admirable, and managed to convey that in her performance.
Joan Skafish also did very well as Alice. Although she attempted no accent, she conveyed the character’s attractiveness and child-like appeal very well. And she made the transition to cowardly cunning convincingly. One funny bit in the first act helped reveal Alice’s complicity in some of the relationship’s more bizarre turns: when June insists that Alice, as an act of penance, eat the remains of her cigar, she begins to do so, but the phone rings, interrupting the ritual. Still, while in the act of answering the phone, Alice finishes up what’s left of the cigar. Skafish pulled off this bit of business, along with many others, excellently.
The part of Mercy Croft, the BBC executive, calls for a “well-groomed lady of indeterminate age, gracious of manner, and freezingly polite.” Although a successful businesswoman and radio personality, she appears to be a conventional, stuffy, middle-class matron “wearing a two-piece suit, matching hat and accessories, and a discreet double string of pearls.” Thus it comes as a shock when Alice’s sneaky, seductive bid for sympathy works, and Mercy Croft takes her in. In the film, the character was cold, predatory and reptilian; thoroughly familiar with lesbian relations, she deliberately destroys June’s career and then steals Alice away from her. This is a gross distortion of Marcus’ script. In the play, her response to Alice’s advances probably comes as just as much a surprise to her as it does to the audience.
Alice Mooney, in this current production, seemed born to play the part of Mercy Croft, or “Mrs. Mercy,” as she is known to all her BBC listeners for whom she dispenses advice on “family planning this week and foundation garments next!” Mooney resembled very closely film actresses such as Phyllis Thaxter and Nina Foch, who made careers out of this type of character. She physically fit the description of the well-tailored executive, with not a single hair out of place. Her mellifluous voice seemed exactly right for this dispenser of platitudes. She played the part perfectly.
Rhonda Chimacoff played the neighbor, Madame Xenia, a fortune teller or “psychometrist,” as she prefers to call herself. She used a thick accent of dubious origin, which was right for the character, and although certain sentences were lost in the thick speech, the audience laughed anyway; it was still funny in general, even if the specific was unclear. As vulgar and gauche as June herself, Chimacoff as Xenia clattered about in too many beads, good-natured and generally brightening the evening.
John Younger is to be congratulated for finding so much of value in Frank Marcus’ play. Even at its best, The Killing of Sister George is not a great play, only a good one. But Younger’s production emphasized the many virtues of the play. Also, he wisely kept it in period, circa 1960; many of the characters’ problems and attitudes would seem less sympathetic in 1983.
No specific credit was given for stage design, but mention must be made of the ultra-realistic set, which included a nearly complete kitchen in which, from time to time, “off-stage” happenings were seen to be actually occurring. Excellent sound effects helped complete the illusion. Assistant director for the production was David Terrenoire. Lighting design was by Sonny Snead.
* * *
From Spectator, March 31, 1983:
More so, however, the review was astounding. In my ten years doing theatre in the area 1 do not recall reading a review that reflected not only the writer’s knowledge of theatre (both script and production) but also the writer’s willingness to do some homework. Mr. Baxter had read some criticism, had a good idea of how the play had been treated, and knew (or thought he knew) what he was about to see.
To my limited knowledge, the play is among the first to use homosexuality frankly and openly, antedating even Boys in the Band. Whereas Boys used homosexuality as the subject. Sister George uses it, in Mr. Baxter’s felicitous choice of words, as the condition of the play. Yet for this modern and sophisticated given, Sister George is still dated — you cannot ignore the many references to World War II — and the play cannot really be made American. The major problem then for any contemporary production of Sister George is to make it appeal to an American audience which has more acquaintance with homosexuality than with WW II, and more experience with serial monogamy and positive role-playing than our parents did. Mr. Baxter knew the original script and that its stage directions demanded a depressing ending, knew the film’s coarse interpretation of one aspect of Marcus’ intention, and therefore knew how and, even more importantly, why we differed; our audience and indeed our cast would not have tolerated a negative, soul-destroying presentation of characters that are very modern and, though ‘flawed’ and ‘credible’, are quite likable.
Besides, we had an obligation to the actresses. Their talent was unbelievable, and as they reached to produce characters that in no real way resembled themselves, it became obvious that the only way Sister George was going to work (it has no message, no particular purpose, no condition or character to focus all its attention on) was to make it an acting piece thoroughly dependent on the ability of the actresses (and their director) to develop characters only sketched out in sparse dialogue.
Here again Mr. Baxter was on target, for he seems to know the difference between script and cast, what choices the cast and director make regarding character, and therefore whether the choices are good — that is, whether these choices succeed in merging the different personae (the character as revealed in the lines and the character as the actress plays it). And what is even more astonishing, he was able to explain his approval of our choices clearly, concisely, and in educated English.
Mr. Baxter seems to have a taste for theatre and a genuine liking for it, enough so to be a responsible reviewer. As Madame Xenia would say, “it’s nice to have one’s hard work appreciated” by someone who handed us the highest compliment of paying such close attention. My apologies all the more then for not having written sooner; before Sister George closed, I had become involved in another project.