An Undignified Dramedy
Sordid Lives, a black comedy about white trash, rode a wave of financial and critical success for over a decade, from L.A.’s theater scene to film and TV credits. Playwright Del Shores did it by playing on stereotypes that feed social discord, from homophobia to fundamentalism, from the country club to the trailer park. His characters are as big as Texas, comic diversions of tragic proportions. Underneath the honky-tonk hijinks is a sweet story about a family’s struggle for unity amid fragmenting differences.
Poor Latrelle Williamson (Darice Clewell) is a Christian soldier carrying the weight of her family’s reputation on her shoulders. Like an armadillo, she guards her family’s secrets in an armored embrace. She needs a story to explain her mother’s untimely death under seamy circumstances, in a motel where she tripped over her boyfriend G.W. Nethercott’s (Jim Reiter’s) wooden legs. She needs to talk some sense into her tacky sister LaVonda (Karen Lambert), who insists on burying Momma in a mink stole, despite the summer heat. She needs her son Ty (Jason Vellon) by her side, but he’s too busy with his acting career, embarrassing her by playing homosexuals.
She most definitely needs her brother, Earl ‘Brother Boy’ (Paul Berry), to stay away. Fortunately, there’s not much chance Dr. Bolinger (Casey Augusterfer) will let him go home for the funeral as he’s still not cured of his transvestitism, even after 20 years in the loony bin.
Aunt Sissy (Carol Cohen) is sweet and helpful as can be with casseroles and all, but she can’t negotiate family quarrels and quit smoking at the same time.
Then there’s that lot of beer-swilling road kill down at Wardell’s (Timothy Sayles’) saloon, those besotted new friends of her sainted mother who threaten to spoil the decorum of the occasion: Odell (Dan Kavanaugh), a mellow master at cat’s cradle; Juanita (Kathryn Huston), a senior floozy in a mini-skirt; and gossip fodder Bitsy Mae (Ali Vellon), who introduces each scene with a country song whose title is unprintable in a family newspaper.
Wardell’s tavern is a quiet place until G.W.’s wife Noleta (Laura Gayvert) and LaVonda shoot it up à la Thelma and Louise, and get themselves thrown in the hoosegow.
If you think queer jokes and drag queens and cripples are funny, if “Your Cheatin’ Heart” speaks to you on a personal level, if big hair and rhinestones and boxer shorts make you giddy, then you’ll love these clowns.
If you seek something deeper, that’s here, too. Latrelle and Ty’s dance of love and denial has pathos enough to power a season of Oprah.
As Ty, Vellon is outstanding in his bittersweet monologues about his reluctance to come out to his Bible-thumping mother. As Latrelle, Clewell’s portrayal of personal transformation is as dramatic as a blossoming prickly pear cactus. Together, they find a peace and beauty that is infectious. On the other hand, Reiter as G.W. Nethercott and Berry as Brother Boy are first-rate physical comics.
As a team, the cast keeps the audience in stitches. Two staging choices, though confuse me: Gayvert’s Noleta is way too attractive for G.W.’s insults, and Ali Vellon’s songs, while entertaining from a poetic and vocal standpoint, would have been better acappella than with the sour guitar accompaniment.
Sordid Lives is different from the usual Dignity Players production on more levels than one. It is a logistically challenging show with more set changes, props and costumes than I’ve seen in an entire season. There’s even a hair designer, and all that attention to detail shows.
With profanity and political incorrectness off the charts, I recommend this schizophrenic show for mature audiences that are not easily offended.
Director: Debbie Barber-Eaton. Production manager, assistant director and tech: Jason Vaughan. Costumer: Jean Beall. Set designer: Eric Lund. Stage manager: Andy McLendon.
Playing thru Oct. 15 at 8pm Th-Sa at Dignity Players, Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 Dubois Rd., Annapolis. $20/FSa; $15/Th: 410-266-8044 x127; www.dignityplayers.org.