Sordid Lives

By Del Shores
Directed by Amy Lewis Zeigler

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Sordid Lives is essentially a study of the clash between Southern-white trash culture and emerging gay sensibilities. Two of its characters, of different generations within the same family, face obstacles in being accepted as homosexual in the overripe, repressive, hot-house atmosphere of Dixie. It is a funny, often outrageous script that manages to run deeper than the marketing lets on.

Upon the death of the family matriarch in small-town Texas, a colorful collection of family members come together to resolve long-standing issues. The story includes confrontations that explore themes of loyalty, betrayal, sexual identity and transexualism, all imbued with both hilarity and heartbreak. Although the script embraces the comedy with vigor, there is a thread of tragedy on display as well.

The Louisville Repertory Company has mounted this play twice before, and since this is my first introduction to the material, I cannot make any comparisons to the previous entries. This most recent iteration struggles to overcome a sluggish pace brought about, in part, by missed cues and fumbled lines that plagued the cast on opening night. The result, in the first act, was that much of the humor fell flat. Fortunately, these multi-character comedic scenes alternate with musical vignettes featuring a honky-tonk singer (Kathryn Furrow in good voice and displaying an evocative style) and earnest monologues by the youngest family member, Ty (good work from J.C. Nixon), that chart his difficulty in breaking free of the repressive family dynamic that put his transvestite uncle, “Brother Boy”, in a mental institution 23 years ago.

The power of the piece lies in the contrasting experience of these two men, Ty and “Brother Boy”. The latter, properly named Earl Ingram, is cruelly locked away, imprisoned indefinitely for homosexuality defined through ignorance and prejudice as mental illness. The character does not appear until the first scene of the second act, and the strength of the playing here is all the more striking following the awkwardness of act one.  Darren McGee plays “Brother Boy” with confidence and depth, elucidating the character with nuance and well-observed detail. The scenario casts the aging drag queen in opposition to his therapist, a strident, self-righteous “de-homosexualization” expert played with fierce conviction by Jennifer Starr Tennant. As this scene plays out, and the utter hopelessness of Earl ever being “cured” according to the terms of his committal is realized, a quality of pathos is discovered amongst the laughs that the remainder of the production finds only in intermittent snatches.

After this extraordinary scene, the action progresses with some good work between Mr. Nixon and Michelle Chalmers as his mother, but the focus and energy dissipated, and the problems of act one surfaced again, so that the climax failed to be fully realized.

Hopefully things will fall into place to better effect for other performances, for the cast seems well chosen for the task, and the play itself seems to enjoy some popularity. It is a script worth seeing, and will surprise you with more than easy laughs.

Featuring: Bryce Blair, Michelle Chalmers, Tom Dunbar, Kathryn Furrow, Darren McGee, J.C. Nixon, Joey Pate, Kimberley Peterson, Tiffany Taylor, Jennifer Starr Tenant, Janice Walter, Todd Zeigler & Herschel Zahnd.
Sordid Lives

June 9,10,11,13,16,17,18 @ 8 p.m.
June 19 @ 2 p.m.

Louisville Repertory Company
The MeX Theatre at The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville Repertory Company