Milford Native and Director Riding ‘High' on Theater Circuit
December 14, 2011
by Jules Becker
For Rob Ruggiero, directing does not vary from play to musical. Over the years, the Milford native and 1979 Milford High graduate, who just turned 50, has staged such dramas as "Take Me Out" and musical fare as "Urinetown, the Musical" and "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn," an original revue for which he received both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations. In fact, the Stonehill College graduate - who completed self-directed theater arts study there before masters work at Rutgers in directing and human communication - was honored this year by his undergraduate alma mater for his body of work. Now, Ruggiero is continuing his collaborative efforts with Connecticut playwright Matthew Lombardo ("Tea at Five") as the latter's most recent effort, "High," has just begun a national tour at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre. The show plays through Sunday, and features acclaimed actress Kathleen Turner.
"I think I'm in a unique group of directors who are comfortable directing both plays and musicals," he said. "I basically treat them all the same. I'm a storyteller." Considering Ruggiero's philosophy of directing, it is not surprising that Lombardo asked him to take the helm of his earlier play "Looped" even before "High." Very comfortable working with Lombardo, Ruggiero gives him high marks for his efforts. "Lombardo's talented and ambitious, "he said. "He dreams big and he makes them (his dreams) happen."
Those dreams have resulted in two Broadway collaborations for the director-playwright team. Ruggiero made his Broadway debut with Lombardo's 2010 comedy "Looped," for which Valerie Harper earned a Tony nomination as an inebriated Tallulah Bankhead. " ‘Looped' is a raucous comedy," he said. "I feel it's even more nuanced now." "Looped" had evolved, Ruggiero observed, and so has "High," which had a short life in New York but earned Evan Jonigkeit an Outer Critics Circle nomination in his Broadway debut as a young drug addict.
Set largely at a fictional St. Francis Church's counseling center, Lombardo's often gritty play - he is a recovered meth user himself - focuses on the verbal sparring between Turner's Sister Jamison Connelly - also known as Jamie - a recovering alcoholic who has become a highly successful addiction counselor, and her toughest challenge yet, a gay 19-year-old crystal meth user and hustler named Cody Randall. While Jamie accuses Cody of looking for an "oil change" rather than real change, Cody answers her unsentimental observations with flippant quips and disrespect. At times, the only thing that stops him from totally resisting treatment is the possibility of being locked up by the state. Father Michael Delpapp, Jamie's superior, seems to serve as a kind of offbeat referee between her and Cody.
Which combatant will win out? In Jamie's words, will conscience or the instinct to survive prevail? Ultimately, all three characters make revelations that have a direct bearing on the play's personal and spiritual outcomes. Jamie's revelation ties in with her unseen younger sister's striking back story. Cody speaks with candor early on about his sexuality and his meth addiction, but needs to deal with the full truth about the boy found dead with him at the time of the attempted suicide that has led to his sessions with Jamie. Even Michael has a secret about his unusual determination to have Jamie persevere in treating Cody. Lombardo's drama may come across as more of a candid teleplay than a truly searing drama, but even lesser material can move theatergoers in the hands of a strong cast.
Ruggiero is blessed with a trio of performers who lose themselves in their roles so that their sometimes predictable face-offs really catch fire. Kathleen Turner finely balances Jamie's coolness with Cody in the early going and her growing concern for his spiritual and physical well-being. She is especially moving when iconoclastic Jamie asks God to join her half way in saving Cody. Timothy Altmeyer does well expressing Michael's first-act restraint and emotionally charged frustration as the priest's stake in Cody's case is uncovered. Best of all is Evan Jonigkeit's seemingly effortless tour de force as Cody. Turner and Jonigkeit are reprising their Broadway work together in the play, and their heated and calmer exchanges are always gripping. Jonigkeit's beautifully modulated performance - moving from feigned nonchalance to an injection-connected panic and eventually to genuine spiritual feeling - serves notice that he is an actor of great range with a big future ahead of him.
Ruggiero will be busy with the multi-city tour of "High" (including Philadelphia and San Francisco among others), but the indefatigable director continues to work on other projects as well. He continues as senior artistic associate with Hartford's Theatre Works and plans a staging of "Carousel" at the Goodspeed Opera House next summer. His own 2005 "Ella," which he calls "a musical portrait of sorts" of legendary vocalist Ella Fitzgerald will continue in on-and-off tour.
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