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Nun the wiser
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Poor Sister George, she hasn’t got a chance. Not with a media giant trying to kill her off.

Despite the grim title, The Killing of Sister George is a hilarious comedy that is being produced by the City Lights Theater Company.

“It was written in 1962,” director Jim Holt says. “It has a lot of the sensibilities of that era.”

One of the plot lines concerns two women who happen to be lesbians. That wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow now, but in 1962 it was rather startling to theatergoers in the United States.

“It’s kind of a cult classic in terms of the way it dealt with relationships between the women in the play,” Holt says. “It wasn’t so controversial in England, but it may have been here. A lot of clubs and different groups of women were making the scene.”

But lesbianism is by no means the central theme of the play. “What is really revolutionary about the play is the way it deals with the media and how the media is manipulated by the times itself,” Holt says. “It has some very strong things to say.”

Ah, yes, those jackals of the media -- in this case, the higher-ups at the BBC. They’ve decided to kill off poor Sister George.

You’ve heard of a play-within-a-play? Well, Sister George is a character-within-a-character, the district nurse in the fictional village of Applehurst.

Sister George is one of the stars of a British radio soap opera. Because of falling ratings, the BBC has decreed that Sister George will soon experience a fatal encounter with a delivery truck.

The reason she’s being dumped is to boost ratings. (A media ploy that often works -- remember who shot J.R.?)

The problem is that the actress who plays Sister George finds out about this plot development before it is set in motion. “She’s played the role for six years and she’s one of the most popular characters on the show,” Holt says.

The actress launches an effort to save her character. That’s when the fun begins.

The play was written by Frank Marcus, who was born in 1928 in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) and emigrated to England with his family in 1939.

Throughout his career, Marcus has written for radio, television and film, plus more than 20 plays. In 1968, The Killing of Sister George was made into a film starring Beryl Reid and Susannah York.

Holt is delighted with his cast. The part of June “George” Buckridge is played by Grace Tootle.

“She is a very experienced and talented actress. This is her first role as a lesbian,” Holt laughs.

The part of the “flatmate,” Alice “Childy” McNaught, is played by Kelly Nelson. Renee Derossett plays Mrs. Mercy, who works for the BBC, and Jody Chapin plays a comic role as a gypsy fortuneteller named Madame Zenia.

Though the title role is Tootle’s, she graciously praises her fellow cast members. “There are only four characters in the play, so everyone has a significant role,” she says.

“It’s set in the 60s in England at a time when homosexuality was not as widely accepted, but the thrust of the play has less to do with sexual preference,” Tootle says. “It’s not a gay play, it’s just another facet of this character. Because of the time frame, it adds depth.”

June’s personality begins to change when she learns of Sister George’s fate, Tootle says. “I start having paranoia and become convinced they are going to fire me,” she says.

“I’m very tempermental, very paranoid -- I’m an actress,” Tootle says. “How it affects me at home is both disturbing and funny -- disturbingly funny.”

June seeks help from an unlikely source. “I go to a fortuneteller whose infallible advice I seek out,” Tootle says. “There’s a whole lot of jockeying for power.”

Tootle is having fun with the role, but says it has been challenging. “This is most definitely different from anything I’ve ever done before,” she says.

“Not only is she gay, she’s really masculine I had to find a way to make her masculine without being stereotypical. I don’t want to do a parody, I want it to be an honest portrayal. To try to be an overtly masculine lesbian in that environment is challenging. When you think of butch, you don’t think of Britain. I didn’t want to do the obvious thing.”

To prepare for the role, Tootle began observing other people. “I watched the way men stand,” she says. “I tried to think of all the little things I could overcome to seem less feminine -- such as immediately crossing my legs when I sit down. I asked a lot of people their opinions about things.”

Since the play is set in Britain, the actors are using British accents, but that hasn’t given Tootle any problems.

“I’m sure if someone from England is sitting in the audience, they might be saying, ‘She’s not from England,’” Tootle says. “But it’s pretty easy to do a British accent. I don’t know too many actors who can’t do one.

“Another interesting aspect is when she is in character as Sister George, her pitch and accent are completely different,” Tootle says. “She’s an old nun, a nursemaid.”

Tootle has had her hands full preparing for the play. A single mother of four, she works full-time.

“We have a crazy rehearsal process,” she says. “Fortunately, all the people in the cast are very competent.”

Acting is something Tootle has always done. “I’ve been involved in theater as long as I can remember,” she says. “It was one of the first things I became involved in when I got to Savannah.”

Love of theater is a gift Tootle has passed on to her children. “My eldest daughter sings and acts all over town, as do the younger children,” she says. “Sometimes, we have to take turns being in plays.”

That requires multi-tasking and diligent scheduling. Tootle did this interview while preparing to drive her 10-year-old daughter to acting class.

“I have directed, produced and performed,” Tootle says. “The only thing I’ve never done is write, and I’d like to try it.

“My friends say I should cull ideas from the family tree,” she says. “Most people would think that was comedy, but it would be a tragedy.”

Savannah is a great place to do community theater, Tootle says. “I appreciate the support the community has given us,” she says.

“I hope everyone comes out to see us,” Tootle says. “I think they will have a good time and lots of laughter.”

She says she owes “a tremendous debt of gratitude to my fellow cast members and our wonderful director. It’s a very accomplished cast. We get to play dress-up and hopefully get some applause.”


City Lights Theater Company presents The Killing of Sister George Sept. 22, 23, 24 and 25. Performances are at 8 p.m. each night and at 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25. Tickets are $22 general admission, $20 for seniors and $15 for students. For reservations, call 234-9860.