Grim times call for comfort and lots of positive distractions. Last night’s performance of Sordid Lives at Dominion Stage was just what the doctor ordered for me and my furloughed friend. A great respite from rainy weather and the sordid politics of today.
Three generations of a small town Texan family are coming together for a funeral of its matriarch Peggy Ingram. The nymphomaniac grandmother dies in a seedy motel room by tripping on her much younger, married lover’s wooden legs after a love- making session. The event forces her trashy, dysfunctional family to rally together, triggering them to face reality and sort their sordid lives and relationships out….
The play has been a treasured classic since it premiered in LA in 1996 and won 14 Drama League Awards. It was followed by a movie in 1999, and nine years later, it was turned into a TV series. Its playwright, Del Shores, specializes in comedy, or rather as he once said, in turning tragedy into comedy. “With my work, I always want people to just forget about anything stressful going on in their lives and be fully entertained. Laughter is the key. If they shed a tear or go hope thinking about the play, that’s a bonus, he said in July this year when interviewed in Denver by Michael Mulhern for BroadwayWorld.com. Last night, as expected, his mission was yet again fulfilled at the opening night of Sordid Lives. Judging by the reaction of the audience, Shores’ recipe for “a black comedy about white trash” keeps working its magic.
Chain smokin’ and fast talkin’ housewives, crazy and eccentric characters, bizarre situations, a ‘coming out’ story, are loosely based on real life stories, as observed by young Shores who grew up in a small Texan town as “a Southern Baptist preacher’s damaged by religion child,” and lived through his own ‘coming out’ later in life. The authenticity of the characters explains the power and popularity of Sordid Lives with both gay and non-gay audiences. “Not only is it (the play) funny, but people really relate to the characters and feel safe to share it outside the gay community” Shores has said.
Sordid Lives’ Director Rick Hayes has picked a ‘winner,’ an easy recipe for success and thus created high expectations from potential audience members who are already in love with the cult characters, situations, and dialogue. He and his team, including all the actors, have risen to the occasion by producing an entertaining show which elicited roars of laughter. Jeffrey Stevenson is fully in character as Brother Boy, Peggy’s gay son, who refuses to ‘de-gay’ and give up his drag attire while in a mental institution. Elissa J. Hudson (Sissy), Peggy’s much younger chain-smoking sister, and Mary Ayala-Bush (La Trelle), Sissy’s prim and proper hypocritical sister, also deliver excellent performances. Denise Marois-Wolf is hilarious as Juanita, and so is Eric Green who plays two roles – Odell Owens and Reverend Barnes. Their natural comic abilities, combined with physical humor, make their secondary roles and performances difficult to forget.
The serious themes underlying the plot, like the personal battles of Ty, La Trelle’s gay son, who escapes the homophobia of his family and surroundings and tries his luck as a soap opera actor in Los Angeles are cleverly separated by the Director from the funny and serious goings-on of the play. Ty, played by deaf actor Alex Bryce – with Shawn g. Byers providing his voice – opens each act with a monologue which gives us an insight into his growing up pains, complex relationships, and the ‘coming out’ process. To reinforce the impact of Ty’s difficult struggle, it is very effective having Byers speaking the role while, simultaneously, Bryce uses sign language, facial expressions, and body language to perform the role. It enriches Ty’s story and Director Rick Hayes’ vision (as he says in the program) to create an “even deeper meaning with more layers.”
Costume Designer Ceci Alberts and her assistant Lisa Brownsword did a wonderful job and must have had fun dressing Peggy’s transvestite brother Earl ‘Brother Boy’ Ingram and the rest of the cast, especially the women characters including the Thelma and Louse incarnations, although I would have loved if the hair was bigger.’ David M. Moretti’s set design and Jeffrey Scott Auerbach’s lighting design provided a true, small town Texan background in-keeping with the colorful characters and their sordid goings on, starting with Sissy’s pink living room and smoothly transforming the stage into a local bar, doctor’s office, and a funeral parlor. Country music recordings, as well as live performances by Katy Chmura (Bitsy Mae Harling), skillfully reinforced the Texan feel and atmosphere of the play, and were cleverly left on during the intermission for a continuous effect.
The cast of Sordid Lives was rewarded with genuine, loud applause at the end of the performance. They deserve sold-out houses during the rest of the run. We left the theatre relaxed and entertained.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.
Sordid Lives plays through October 27, 2013 at Dominion Stage performing at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre One – 2700 S. Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.