23 September 2016

Sordid Lives, by Del Shores

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and Del Shores’ Sordid Lives goes big—big hair, big personalities, big problems, and big laughs. The MT Pockets production of this black comedy about white trash brought a bit of Texas to the West Virginia stage.

The play revolves around the funeral for Peggy Ingram, an elderly woman who died tripping over the two wooden legs of the man with whom she was having an affair. She leaves behind a rowdy and colorful set of characters who populate the play: her sister Sissy Hickey, who just wants to muddle through and quit smoking; her daughters Latrelle Williamson and La Vonda Dupree, who take very different attitudes toward their mother’s wild final six months; her son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, locked in a mental institution for being a gay transvestite and Tammy Winette impersonator; GW Nethercroft, the distraught veteran whose legs Peggy tripped over; and Noleta Nethercroft, GW’s justifiably outraged wife and La Vonda’s best friend. There are also the denizens of the local bar: Bitsy Mae Harling, a singer who became good friends with Peggy during her final months; along with Wardell Owens, who carries the guilt of getting his best friend Brother Boy sent to the institution, and Odell Owens, who isn’t particularly bright and has been deeply scarred by witnessing the death of a pig. And outside, but intricately connected to this small Texas community is Ty Williamson, Latrelle’s son. He’s a gay actor living in New York. And he’s had 27 therapists in three years.

As one can imagine, Sordid Lives is more a character driven than a plot driven play. The plot itself is pretty fragmented and mostly provides a series of threads that connect to a certain extent, but also run fairly independently of one another. But rather than rely on a coherent plot, the show runs through those big Texas personalities. From Noleta and La Vonda pulling a Thelma and Louise and holding up Wardell’s bar, to Brother Boy’s Tammy Winette impersonation and his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger’s, attempts to fuck him straight, the play is run through with big characters and big acting.

The MT Pockets production was extremely funny, and definitely involved some big acting. Raquel Nethken (Noleta) and Tawnya Drake (La Vonda) took their drunken Thelma and Louise act and ran with it. Of course, as a gay transvestite Tammy Winette impersonator, it would be hard to play Brother Boy small, but Colin Crawford and Lauren Swann (Dr. Bolinger) played well off one another, as the sassy Southern queen who isn’t motivated to become straight but participates out of politeness, and the boozy small town therapist desperate to prove her ‘de-homozexualization’ theory and get on Oprah.

Despite the penchant for big performances, some characters demanded more subtly and stability, including Adam Messenger (Ty) and Charlotte Haas (Sissy). Ty’s role is a challenge because the majority of his performance is a monologue spoken to the audience/therapist (with some intriguing symbolism there), so Messenger largely had to rely on himself without other actors to play off of. But his meditative and reflective performance took us through the challenges and self-doubt of being gay but coming from a conservative Southern Baptist community. Sissy is one of my favorite characters because she finds herself caught in between various feuding factions, when all she wants to do is bury her sister and give up smoking. The humor Haas brought to the role was subtle, but really endearing—it wasn’t a big, gun-waving, drunken shouting part, but her attempts to navigate the various relationships in play around her provided a number of opportunities for jokes and ironic understatement. Haas also had one of the most convincing Texan accents, which was one area some of the cast struggled. Texas has, at least stereotypically, a very distinct accent, and it wasn’t always there in this production.

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