By Del Shores
Directed by Jeff Mangum
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Jennifer Starr & Craig Nolan Highley in Sordid Lives. Photo courtesy Wayward Actors Company.
Sordid Lives is an outrageous, funny, sometimes crass, comedy that I always thought was rather dated; a product of American culture twenty years ago. In light of recent events, it suddenly seems relevant again in ways its creator may not have anticipated.
Not that Wayward Actors Company necessarily understood that when they choose to include it in their 2016-17 season, a decision made many months ago, but a play that examines the struggle of rural America to embrace tolerance for gay culture may have something to say about the rise of intolerance in 2016.
In the aftermath of the death of Peggy, a “good Christian woman” in Winters, Texas, her unusual family comes to grips with the ignominious manner of her departure: she hit her head on the sink and bled to death after tripping over her lover’s wooden legs in a motel room. The four “chapters” are framed by scenes of her grandson, Ty’s (Jake Minton), therapy sessions. He is a gay actor working in New York City who has been away from home, and the least eccentric of the group. Minton plays these monologues with an easy charm and low-key, unforced intelligence.
The strengths of the piece are the colorful characters, the weakness is an episodic structure that allows it to play more like several short plays that share elements. The first scene sets the scenario in motion and establishes the family dynamic with fair humor. The second scene, in which two women (Glenna Godsey and Kimby Taylor-Peterson fairly owning the scene) in the family exact a revenge on three men in a bar, ingeniously staged by director Jeff Mangum amongst the audience, is a rough-and-tumble farce of humiliation and remorse. Bringing the action off the stage was not without some awkwardness, and the limitations of the lighting were unfortunate, but it lent the scene immediacy and was crucial to winning the audience over.
But it is the third scene that works the best and carries genuine power. Peggy’s son Earl (Craig Nolan Highley), known as “Brother Boy” (just in case we forget we are in the South), was institutionalized 23 years earlier by her because he is homosexual and a transvestite. As we witness an absurd session of conversion therapy with a doctor (Jennifer Starr) who is clearly exorcising her own sexual neurosis, the scene is pointed in portraying Brother Boy as being particularly well adjusted in his identity, despite his incarceration. Craig Nolan Highley plays the character with great humor and gentle feeling, while Jennifer Starr, returning to the role she played in the 2011 Louisville Repertory Company production, makes the doctor suitably mean and nasty.
Overall there is sound work from the cast, although opening night things felt a little loose still, and the set design was somewhat spare. As Rita Mae Harling, Jessica Fryrear sings the title song at the top of each scene in good voice with a honky-tonk edge, although, again placing the action in the audience space, the indifferent house lighting did her no favors; she cried out for a spotlight.
Sordid Lives ends with an extended, irreverent sequence surrounding Peggy’s funeral that feels a bit stretched and, at this point, predictable. Writer Del Shores is in familiar territory here, resolving his sketchy “plot” in unsurprising ways, but it does not blunt the earlier good points. It is easy to see the play now as a hopeful fantasy, one in which men and women who viciously bully “queers” are remorseful and seek forgiveness, or receive their comeuppance at gun point as befits their “good ole boy” character. Despite the raucous hijinks and the use of firearms, the end feels like a triumph of gentle acquiescence in resolving conflicts, which is an ideal we might all hope for.
Featuring: Ron Dawson, Tom Dunbar, Jessica Fryrear, Glenna Godsey, Craig Nolan Highley, Christopher McDavid, Emily Miller, Jake Minton, Jerry Prince, Jennifer Starr, Andy Szuran, Kimby Taylor-Peterson, and Janice Walter
November 17, 18, 19, 23, 25, & 26 @ 7:30 pm
November 27 at 5:00 pm.
Tickets $18 available at Thebardstown.com
Wayward Actors Company
At The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.