Let me be clear about this: I did not want to like this show. I don’t care for Southern Fried Comedies, which are overdone round these parts. Furthermore, having been raised by a Texan, shows like this have big ol’ shoes to fill: I’ve seen it first-hand and I know all about it.
And while the accents weren’t spot on – it’s harder than you think – the characters sparkled, stumbled and sighed so naturally, I couldn’t help but think of my own Texan family, the aunts and uncles, the liquor and beer, cigarette smoke and comfortable racism. Billed as a black comedy about white trash, Shores’ play offers a little more than that. There’s a weight to the story, and a very real and telling look at southern culture on the proverbial skids.
Following the opening number in singer-songwriter style (don’t think Broadway musical, but rather Bluebird Cafe) and the first monologue, the lights come up in an open floor-plan Texas ranch, where the table stands laden with food, sure sign of a death in the family. Worse still, it was the aged matriarch of the Ingram clan. And Peggy didn’t go out easy, either – she tripped over the prosthetic legs of her lover in a motel room.
Oh, the shame! And there’s a lot of that in Sordid Lives – the shame, I mean, and fear as well. Not to mention arrogance, ignorance, revenge and alcoholism, though not in that order. But bless their hearts, they’re trying!
Bitsy Mae Harling (Rusti Rae) is trying to sing her songs and share the truth, trashy as she might be. Sissy Hickey (Melissa Williams), the deceased’s sister, is trying to quit smoking. G.W. Nethercott (Tim Bush) is trying to forgive himself for sleeping with his wife’s best friend’s mother and then leaving his wooden legs on the floor for her to trip over. His wife, Noleta (Joy Tilley Perryman), is trying to get her revenge.
LaVonda DuPree (Pamela Youngblood Jasper) just wants her mother buried in her favorite mink stole. And poor Latrelle (Holly Butler) just wants her family name intact. Her son Ty (Trey Palmer) lives in New York and just wants to be okay with himself.
Her brother Earl (Chuck Long) just wants out of the psych ward he spent the last twenty years in. After all, he’s a cross-dressing homosexual, not an actual mental patient. But his therapist Dr. Eve (Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva) wants to cure that sexuality and get on Oprah.
That’s what makes this riotous comedy so black – it has all the qualities of a Southern Gothic. Look for it: It’s a generational story with deeply flawed characters living amid a decaying world. There are definitely secrets, and the story explores the culture of the Deep South, especially gay-related issues which are close to the playwright’s heart.
None of that exploration detracts from the show’s comedic focus. The cast and director/producer Dave McGinnis pull off a near-perfect balance of ludicrous and maudlin with excellent pacing and vivaciously-delivered dialogue that includes razor-sharp one-liners. While the whole ensemble is good, the greats are Rae, for a damn fine voice, and Williams and Long for characterizations that prove one very important thing: Nashville is better than Dallas.
See what I did there? No? That’s okay; I’m not a comedic master. To be honest, my sense of humor is only described as dry by the most generous souls. I enjoyed the show immensely in spite of myself.
ACT 1’s Sordid Lives is funny by any standard, and if you absolutely have to see one Southern comedy this year, I’d say this is the one. Be sure to say ‘hi’ to Thelma and Louise, and compliment the casserole. It’s Noleta’s mother’s recipe, bless her heart.
ACT 1’s production of Sordid Lives concludes its run with performances today (Oct. 11), Saturday and Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Darkhorse Theater (4610 Charlotte Ave. For tickets visit TicketsNashville.com or the ACT 1 website at act1online.com. All individual tickets are $15.
*Photos of Chuck Long, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Tim Bush, Macon Kimbrough, Pamela Youngblood Jasper, Joy Tilley Perryman, Holly Butler and Melissa Williams courtesy ACT 1.