SALT LAKE CITY — Sordid Lives takes place in rural Texas where a woman named Peggy died suddenly in the midst of an affair; The play shows the many ripples of her death as well as the influences of Peggy while she was still alive. Come to think of it, I wonder if you could make an argument for a dead woman being the protagonist. Hmm.
Peggy’s grandson Ty is gay. He is in therapy because his mother is in denial about his sexuality. It turns out that thirty years before Peggy had her own son Brother Boy committed in an attempt to “de-homosexualize” him. The rest of the play spirals out from this prejudice, the worst of which can happen deep within families. And small towns are like extended families — everyone knows everyone else and is touched in some way by what happens to them. In this case, before her death Peggy was having an affair with G.W., a Vietnam vet married to Peggy’s neighbor Noleta. The hypocrisy of Peggy’s sexual escapades in light of her treatment of her son is startling at the same time that it’s incredibly true to life. People, in general, are incredibly consistent in their inconsistencies.
The strength of the play lies in the creation of some very memorable characters and some great one-liners. Those strengths, however, I think also allow for the play’s structural weakness: its four scenes each meander much longer than they need to, and it takes quite a while for the necessary connecting cartilege to be revealed; it’s as if Del Shores, the playwright, is setting careful traps in this family saga, waiting to catch an unsuspecting audience. The problem is that the surprises are fun but not all that surprising, and I would almost rather sacrifice them in favor of pacing and momentum. I also found that the message of the play — the simple truth that we all need to be more accepting of those who are different from ourselves — while lovely and important, gets hammered home with a little too much verve. I wanted to see the characters make choices rather than hear them talk about being better.
The characters start at points of colloquial cliché — the play is a self-proclaimed “black comedy about white trash” — but director Fran Pruyn and her fine cast do all that they can to overcome the script’s flaws. For example, there’s Peggy’s long-suffering sister Sissy (Vicki Pugmire) is very much a real person trying valiantly to quit smoking amid the craziness of her sister’s funeral. Peggy’s daughters, the straight-laced Latrelle (Barb Gandy) and LaVonda (Teresa Sanderson) share an honest to goodness sisterly bond, jibes and barbs and all, and there is clear tenderness visible beneath their strained rapport. The town is full of stand-out performances; I was particularly impressed by Barbara Smith’s portrayal of the lush Juanita, who delivers some of the best one-liners in the show, a lot of them non-sequiturs that made me laugh at loud. As the exiled Brother Boy, Michael Canham is both touching and hilarious, struggling to balance his own needs as a gay man with the expectations of his conservative family. All in all, it’s a pretty fantastic cast and I don’t have room to mention them all; but this is is a full and solid ensemble having a grand time, which is very fun to watch.
Outside of the frame of the Winters, Texas and the funeral preparations are two conventions that I believe director Pruyn employs to great effect and success. The first of these is a simple spot on Ty, Peggy’s gay actor grandson, speaking to an unseen therapist about the difficulties he’s had coming out. As Ty, Alexander Bala avoids cliché and is quite moving; his considerable monologues feel organic and honest, providing an interesting and solid dramatic anchor to the wackiness of Winters. The other convention is an unexpected use of music. Each of the play’s four “chapters” begins with a song performed by Peggy’s uncoventional friend, ex-con Bitsy Mae Harling. Emily Burnworth’s performance as Bitsy Mae is show-stealing to say the least; her singing is sultry and warm, and there is definite passion and meaning expressed with every lyric. Bitsy Mae doesn’t have a huge speaking role, but the acting Burnworth delivers through her singing is stunning and quite worthy of applause, and I found myself looking forward to her “monologues” as much as Ty’s.
Overall, Sordid Lives is a fun evening at the theatre. It deals lightly with some heavy topics — I kind of wish the black comedy was blacker — managing be true and heartwarming without turning gloppy. It’s like a serving of tuna casserole for the soul; it’s not for everyone, but when it suits, it’s familiar and satisfying and just right.