Playwrights like to keep it close to home. Most tellingly, the story of the dysfunctional family has been a recurring refrain from the earliest days of theater. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles raised the bar pretty damn high with “Oedipus the King” (c. 429 B.C.), which featured such sick family-themed topics as infanticide, patricide and incest. In the year 1600, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” resolved aberrant upbringing in medieval Denmark in the dark walls of Kronberg Castle with murder, suicide and possible madness. In modern theater, Tennessee Williams was the veritable master of conveying domestic lunacy. “The Glass Menagerie” (1944) elevates denial and codependency to dazzling new heights.
Del Shores’ play “Sordid Lives” is a madcap comedy about one bona fide nutty family in a small Texas town. They must contend with their own wacky relationships and warped sense of love for one another while trying to bury the clan matriarch, who has died suddenly under scandalous circumstances. Since its debut in 2000, “Sordid Lives” has won 14 Drama League Awards and been adapted to both the big screen and as a television series. “Sordid Lives” has also garnered a cult following among lovers of dark comedy as well as the LGBT community, ostensibly for addressing some of the sheer absurdity that can stem from intolerance. Locals have a chance to check out Shores’ handiwork at Players by the Sea, which features a dozen local theater favorites including Bill Ratliff, Brooks Studier, Ashley Augustyniak, Holly Gutshall, Seth Lagner and Barbara Colaciello.
Director Dana Branch says the serendipity of her involvement with the show’s production could not have been more auspicious. “I had been watching the DVDs of the TV show, and I swear to you, 10 minutes after we finished the last episode, Joe [Schwarz, executive director of PBTS] calls me and asks me to direct. I took that as some kind of sign!” Facing only a two-week timeframe for rehearsals, both director and cast avoided any “dysfunctional” behaviors by focusing on their shared love of Shores’ story. “It is such a talented and professional cast,” Branch says, “and they deliver some really amazingly touching moments on that stage.”
One of the more poignant undercurrents that guides the action of “Sordid Lives” is the way it playfully yet sensitively addresses how people come out to their families. Studier plays Ty, a 20-something gay man who had left his native Texas to move to West Hollywood and pursue his calling as an actor. Now returning home for the imminent family funeral, Ty decides to reveal his sexuality to his conservative mother Latrelle (played by Gutshall), a woman primarily concerned with keeping up appearances, however fragile and porous.
“The show has such a huge heart,” says Studier, who personally feels that what he calls the “gay theme” of the play is merely a facet of a greater idea. “I think Shores’ ultimate message that ‘love conquers all’ could hopefully appeal to everyone.” Shores also addresses the lingering yet dying belief that sexuality can somehow be “cured” with the character of Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, whose parents had placed him in a mental hospital for 20 years of unsuccessful “Dehomosexualization Therapy.” In a story filled with already colorful characters, Brother Boy, who overcomes his nightmarish treatment and continues to follow his bliss as a cross-dressing Tammy Wynette impersonator, is perhaps the most vibrant and greatest survivor of this onstage saga.
“It’s been kind of a different role for me and I’m probably playing against type,” laughs Ratliff, who at 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 200-plus pounds cuts a striking figure as the blonde-wigged and lipstick-sporting honky tonk chanteuse. Ratliff believes that playwright Shores uses the play’s narratives as a kind of funhouse mirror that reflects the ridiculousness of social intolerances. “In the same way that a television show like ‘All in the Family’ helped show how silly and fear-based prejudices can be, I think that if people can take a look at their own hang-ups and fears, they can eventually let those things go and change.”