SORDID LIVES

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Players by the Sea opened its 2012-2013 season in the Studio Theatre with “Sordid Lives,” a comedy by Del Shores that will run through September 8th. Reservations are definitely recommended for two reasons. The Studio Theatre has less than 100 seats, and with this all-star cast, ticket demand is high. Player’s 2011 trailer-trash production “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” was very successful, so Players invited Dana Branch Vinci back to direct this tale of a dysfunctional Texas family.
Before you read on, it is time for a disclaimer. Sordid is probably not a word in your everyday vocabulary, at least we hope it is not. According to Webster, the definition is “morally ignoble or base, vile, meanly selfish.” Depending on your prospective, you might conclude that Shore’s “Sordid Lives” lives up to the definition. Alternately, you might find that it is a wickedly funny comedy with a number of painfully poignant moments that linger in the mind. “Sordid Lives” debuted in 1996 as a play and was made into a movie in 2000 that has become somewhat of a cult favorite. A television series followed in 2008.
The show opens with sexy country music singer Bitsy Mae Harling (Amanda Morales) setting the scene with a song that forewarns the audience of what is to come (“Now who’s to judge who’s a saint and who’s a sinner . . .”)
Set in Winters, Texas, the plot concerns the way a small town family deals with a variety of repressed emotions when the adulterous matriarch Peggy accidently dies in a seedy motel when she trips over the detached wooden legs of Vietnam vet G. W.Nethercott (Michael Smithgall).
Each scene in the play opens with a monologue by Peggy’s grandson, Ty Williamson, played by Brooks Studier, in an excellent performance. Speaking directly to the audience, he plays a New York actor who, conflicted about being gay, is now seeing his twenty-seventh therapist.
In the opening scene we meet Sissy, Peggy’s sister. Brooks Ann Meierdierks is a hoot as the nicotine-deprived Sissy who tries to cope with her two nieces, Latrelle and La Vonda.
The second scene takes place in Bubba’s Bar, a beer joint owned by Wardell “Bubba” Owens (Seth Langner) who is G.W.’s best friend. Also in the bar is Bubba’s brother Odell Owens, played by Jeff Wells, who loves to retell the story of a pig-bloating incident. Adding more local flavor to the setting is Juanita (Robyn Neal), a barfly with short-term memory problems.
The big-mouthed, big-haired LaVonda (Cathy O’Brien) and her best friend Noleta (Ashley Augustyniak) who is also G.W.’s wife, suddenly crash the bar scene to seek revenge on G.W. for his past indiscretions with the deceased Peggy. At gunpoint, they force the boys to strip to their underwear, put on makeup and dance. After the girls have their fun, they go out and rob a store. They consider themselves to be “Thelma and Louise” knockoffs.
At the start of Act Two, we are at a mental hospital in Big Springs, Texas where Earl, the brother of Latrelle and LaVonda, has been institutionalized for over twenty years. “Brother Boy” (portrayed by the hilarious Bill Ratliff) appears in drag because he wants to dress like Tammy Wynette. A failed attempt at “dehomosexualization” therapy by the lustful Dr. Eve Bolinger (Barbara Colaciello), who is hoping for fame and appearances on Oprah, is one of the funniest scenes in the play.
A little side note . Actors in local plays are allowed to create their own biographies for the play’s playbill. Mr. Ratliff’s is a short and sweet one line “is married with two children.” That is it. Bill has done a number of outstanding roles over the past 15 years. In fact if you wonder why he is so good as Brother Boy it is probably because of his early training in drag. About twelve years ago, he played not one but two women, Phyllis and Leslie, in Theatre Jacksonville’s production of “Sylvia.”
The only even close-to-normal person in the play is Latrelle Williamson (Holly Gutshall). She does have her problems: while proud of her son Ty, she persists in denying his homosexuality even after she goes to New York and sees him starring, totally nude, in a gay play.
The final scene is in a church where Peggy is laid out in a coffin and the family crisis is finally resolved, well ,sort of, by Reverend Barnes (Jeff Wells).
If you’re confused when you see the play as to who is who and who is doing what to whom, just keep this review handy since we have provided more of the plot than we usually do in a review. This play has it all; those words you are not supposed to say on TV, beer guzzling, pill popping, gun toting, same-sex loving, pistol-packing mamas, cross-dressing and some very funny lines. Dana Vinci’s direction allows some over-the top performances by some very talented actors.
Set Designer Brian Grant’s clever and well planned design provided four different locations in this small space. The studio theatre has no wings on either side, and actors must mostly enter through a back door. The set had white paneled walls, and largely uncluttered furnishings, which supported quick scene changes.
Fresh from winning a Pelican Award for costume design, Dana Marie Ferger is back and working with Director Vinci, created very colorful attire for these zany characters, that included bright casual clothes for the ladies, tough-guy clothes for the bar scene, and pink for Brother Boy as Tammy Wynette.
Stage Manager Amanda Eason handled all the properties in addition to directing the smooth and effective set changes.
The opening night reception was catered by Beach Road Chicken Dinners (at 1432 Atlantic Boulevard) , a Jacksonville legend. Loved the chicken, creamed peas, coleslaw and biscuits.
If you want to see this show, make your reservations quickly, as tickets are going fast. Call 249-0289 or visit www.playersbythesea.org. Some people will call this show charming, others might say alarming! Decide for yourself.

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