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Black Flatters Figures in Brisk 'Sister George'

Theater review: In Cal State Fullerton's staging, the dark comedy's characters are clearly and brightly drawn.

May 23, 1997|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — "The Killing of Sister George," now in a quality production at Cal State Fullerton through the weekend, probably isn't going to shock anybody these days. A pair of lesbians living together is no big deal, right?

But back in London in 1965, when Frank Marcus' black comedy premiered, the notion was startling. The original producers left the word "lesbian" out of the play so censors wouldn't be ruffled.

Thirty years may have changed our perceptions, but it hasn't diminished the pleasures of "Sister George," which was first staged in the United States in 1968 and became a movie starring Beryl Reid and Susannah York that same year. It remains a bitingly clever take on ego and skewed domesticity, gay or straight.

At CSUF, director Gretchen Kanne is fortunate to get such able, flavorful performances from Hilary Russell as a BBC actress who fears she'll lose her job and Danielle Bisutti as Childie, her lover stuck in perpetual adolescence. If "Sister George" is to come through as tangibly as it should, these characters need to be clearly and brightly drawn.

Russell uses bold strokes for June, who plays a nurse called Sister George in a silly soap opera about goings-on in a rural town. When we first see June, she's hungrily smoking a cigar and stomping belligerently around the small flat. June is convinced that Sister George will be killed off in a future episode. Of course, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Childie is there for June to abuse and lessen the sting. Russell's June all but chews on her as the play progresses, and the situation gets more and more bleak.

Childie, apparently not much more than a big-eyed, long-legged prop for June, is reaching her own conclusions about the relationship and the future. Maybe life without her tyrant wouldn't be so bad. Bisutti smartly shows Childie isn't as dumb or helpless as she seems on first blush. Or first swallow.

Childie has taken steps to ensure her own escape. Mrs. Mercy Croft, a boss at the BBC who gives June the news about Sister George's demise, is there to help. But is Childie trading one sadomasochistic scene for another? Laura Raynor gives Croft a hint of the sinister, enough to have the audience wondering.

Besides the thoughtful acting (an exception being Cathy Petz's cliched performance as the neighborhood psychic) and Kanne's brisk pacing, this production has other nice touches.

Barbara Braden Meyer's set of the couple's living room is revealing, with the clutter of Childie's dolls quietly battling with the clutter of June's awards and more serious knickknacks. These two obviously have more than the usual friction of opposing personalities.

The lighting design by Bonnie Vigil is also good, making the time shifts from bright day to evening to early morning believable. The lighting at dawn, as a sleepless June is gulping gin and fretting, is especially well done. Sister George's end may be near, but at least for these moments, her world looks soft and golden.

* "The Killing of Sister George," Cal State Fullerton's Recital Hall, 800 N. State College Blvd. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends Sunday5/25. $6 and $8. (714) 773-3371. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"The Killing of Sister George,"

Hilary Russell: Sister George/June Buckeridge

Danielle Bisutti: Alice "Childie" McNaught

Laura Raynor: Mrs. Mercy Croft

Cathy Petz: Madame Xenia

A Cal State Fullerton production of Frank Marcus' play. Directed by Gretchen Kanne. Set: Barbara Braden Meyer. Costumes: Shelly Williams. Lighting: Bonnie Vigil. Makeup and hair: Dianna Mullinix. Sound: Brian Pate. Musical arrangement: Jeff Fairbanks. Stage manager: Sunshine Miller.

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