Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Sordid Lives"

Sordid Lives
Del Shores

Luke Brady, Marie O'Donnell, Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley & Scott Cox
Now who’s to judge who’s a saint or a sinner,
Lord, it’s tough enough to trudge from brunch to dinner.
It’s a bitch sortin’ out our sorry little sordid lives.

Mama’s dead: Tripped over GW’s wooden legs while screwing him in a cheap motel.  GW’s wife, Noleta, is a mess; Mama’s sister, Sissy, is trying to console the poor thing (Bless her heart) with tea and Valium (“Take the whole bottle”).  Mama’s grown girls, Latrelle and LaVonda, are fighting over whether Mama should wear her mink with the fake eyes in the middle of a Winters, Texas summer as she lies all prettied up in the coffin.  Brother Boy – who does the best Tammy Wynette imitation you can imagine -- is still in that crazy house after being outed twenty-three years ago to Mama by his best friend, Wardell.  And Mama’s grandson, Ty (the cute TV-soap star), is on his twenty-seventh therapist of the past three years trying to figure out how, if ever, he can be his openly gay self in a family like this one.

To top it off, Mama (good Christian that she was) had become best friends and was hanging out with that white trash, cheap, bar singer, Bitsy Mae Harling.  Yes, honey, this family – like poor Tammy herself – has “more trouble than Christ on the cross.” 

It has taken over twenty years; but thank the Good Lord, Del Shores’ much-awarded play and later, gay-fave movie, Sordid Lives, has finally reached a live stage in San Francisco thanks to New Conservatory Theatre Center (which previously had hugely successful runs with the playwrights’ Southern Baptist Sissies and Yellow).  And what a laugh-filled, heart-warming production it is under the able direction of Dennis Lickteig.  The parade of odd and wonderful characters we meet is over-the-top in Southern manners, mannerisms, and mores (or lack there-of).  However, under Mr. Lickteig’s direction, the fun the cast has with those idiosyncrasies – even when exaggerated to match and exceed the stereotypes we all carry of our Southern sisters and brothers – is never done mean-heartedly or even with ridicule.  There is a gentle, loving touch given to this collection of oddities, even as we are in tears laughing at their drawls, their choice of wear and wig, and the tangled situations they now find their sordid lives.

Divided into four chapters, we are first introduced to the women of the family, who go to the bathroom to “tittle,” call a penis a “tally wacker,” and faithfully report to each other the latest gossip heard at the local Piggly-Wiggly (like the poor clerk who has “gotten so big, you could move in”).  They are gathering one-by-one in the living room of Sissy (Mama’s sister), who declares up front, “I’d never quit smoking if I knew Sister was going to die.”  

We soon learn she’s right.  She shouldn’t have quit – mainly because the rubber band deterrent on her arm that Michaela Greeley keeps snapping when her Sissy wants a drag – accompanied by a loud “Ouch” and a three-syllable-version of “Shi-ii-iit” -- is clearly not working.  With her teased hair sprayed into perfection and half-stockings barely reaching her knees, Ms. Greeley is the perfect picture of a grieving (sort of) sister ready to offer Texas hospitality and sympathy to all who enter.

Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley & Marie O'Donnell
Into the house comes weepy Noleta Nethercott (Shannon Veon Kase), wife of Mama’s wooden-leg lover, totally distraught in her pink-sponge curlers – but feeling much better when she loads up between tears with some fried chicken.  High-and-mighty Latrelle (Marie O’Donnell), who just cannot believe Mama “shacked up in a motel with a low-life with two wooden legs,” comes by to solicit her Aunt Sissy’s help in the mink-stole controversy.

Coming to ensure Mama gets to wear her favorite stole to the Pearly Gates to meet in style her Maker is LaVonda, whose own super-tight jeans, inch-long false eyelashes, and pink-flowered purse of plastic make their own fashion statement.  Among this bevy of hilarious beauties, Cat Luedtke’s LaVonda is particularly one-hundred-percent a hoot – but a hoot with a heart for Latrelle’s gay son, Ty, whom her sister, Latrelle, is stuck in flat denial that her son is “homosexual” – even if he did appear off-Broadway in a play with all men, stark-naked. 

Shannon Kase, Gary Giurbino, Nathan Tylutki, Robin Gabrielli & Cat Luedtke
Chapter Two introduces us to some of the good, ol’ boys of Winters, Texas in Bubba’s Bar – just one of the several tongue-in-cheek set designs of Kuo-Hao Lo with detailed touches and props by Ting Na Wang meant to tickle our innards.  GW Nethercott (Gary M. Giurbino) is drinking away his sorrow in losing his one true love, Mama, while not worrying too much about his distraught wife, Noleta.  Meanwhile, Wardell “Bubba” Owens (Scott Cox) is feeling guilty about his betrayal twenty-three years ago of his pal, Brother Boy; and he has really had enough of his brother’s Cat’s Cradle string tricks (a show unto themselves for us to behold) and his stupid, “Swine Weigh-In” story about a pig’s tragic demise (his brother being Odell, played by Nathan Tylutki).  Wardell has even had it with GW’s blubbering about his now-dead, beloved Peggy (Mama): “Get off the cross, buddy; we need the wood.” 

Each actor has moments now and as the chapters unfold to excel in his quirky ways, and collectively they are moved to some dramatic transformations after Laverne and Shirley (aka as Noleta and LaVonda) arrive, loaded with whiskey and guns. 

Melissa O'Keefe & Scott Cox
Finally in Chapter Three, we meet cross-dressing Brother Boy; and the wait is well worth it, given the sweet, silly, and snappy interpretation Scott Cox gives to the admirer of Kitty, Loretta, and his proclaimed soul-mate, Tammy.  Just hearing Brother Boy say “O-kaaaay” brings the house down.

Brother Boy’s therapy duel of wits and ways with breast-showing, booze-swishing Dr. Eve Bolinger – who wants to use her dehomsexualization of Earl as her ticket to get on Oprah – is too funny and too sad at the same time, especially given current politics in some states.  Melissa O’Keefe pulls no punches in her betrayal of the horny, fame-seeking doctor but does pull every g-string she can to get more of our laughs.

Chapter Four is the funeral.  You just gotta be there to believe it.  Priceless.

Opening each chapter is the beautifully tuned, country twang of Bitsy Mae Harling, played in leathered-up style by Amy Meyers, who also takes some nice jaunts down Gospel Lane as she accompanies herself on guitar.  Each chapter also begins with a scene of Ty Williamson, Latrelle’s actor son, having his own therapy session to talk about his past and ongoing journey to come out to colleagues and family – not an easy road to travel in rural Texas.  Amidst all the souped-up hilarity of the evening, Luke Brady reminds us of what he, Brother Boy, and countless other gay men face – still to this day – in coming to grips with their sexual orientation in a landscape of those who think of them as perverse fags.  Kudos especially goes to Mr. Brady for an exceptionally moving and authentic performance.

So much of the script’s titters and tee-hees are enhanced by the costumes of Wes Crain and the wigs of David Carver-Ford, both of which result in outright guffaws when characters first walk into our sight.  Patricia Reynoso has to be commended for the dialect coaching she has given each of these drawling wonders.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting  and Ryan Lee Short’s sound designs cap off a creative team’s efforts that results in a production fun, funny, and fantastic.

Even for someone who has seen the movie a dozen times (and thinks only Leslie Jordon could ever play Brother Boy), there are many new and renewed laughs to come while reveling in NCTC’s San Francisco premiere of Del Shore’s Sordid Lives.  I can think of no better way to gear oneself up for Pride 2017 than first a visit to Winters, Texas.

Rating: 5 E

Sordid Lives continues in extension through June 24, 2017 on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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