Like an R-rated “Steel Magnolias,” Del Shores’ play “Sordid Lives,” which opened at Spokane Civic Theatre on Friday, explores love, death and familial dysfunction in a tight-knit Southern community. But unlike “Steel Magnolias,” this is a wild and raucous comedy that frequently lives up to the “sordid” part of its title, and it’ll pivot from a raunchy laugh line to genuine poignancy with the spin of a stiletto heel. It’s a risky, frequently hilarious, occasionally brilliant juggling act.
The tone of the show, alternately morbid and ridiculous, is established right out of the gate: The story is predicated on an offstage death, but the details of said death are comically absurd. The deceased is Peggy Ingram, a respected, God-fearing matriarch of Winters, Texas, who dies after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover GW (played Friday night by understudy Will Gilman) and striking her head on a motel room sink.
Directed by Lance Babbitt, “Sordid Lives” perfectly captures the look and feel of the thrift store-furnished living rooms and the hole-in-the-wall taverns of central Texas. It doesn’t follow a traditional structured plot – it’s arranged into four individual vignettes, and most of the characters don’t overlap until Peggy’s funeral at the end. Nor is its tone easily classifiable: It works as a sharply observed comedy about specific people in a specific place, but it’s also a bittersweet snapshot of a mostly conservative rural town.
Peggy’s death sends the community into a scandalized frenzy, and her family tries to sweep the news of the infidelity under the rug. Peggy’s sister Sissy (Lauralynn “Lulu” Stafford) had planned to quit smoking – she wears rubber bands around her wrist and snaps them whenever she craves nicotine – but the stress has left her popping handfuls of pills instead. And Peggy’s daughters Latrelle (Phedre Burney-Peters) and LaVonda (Jamie Sciarrio), already at odds with one another, start fighting over whether to bury their mother in her favorite mink stole, despite the sweltering summer heat.
Shores, who is gay, grew up in Winters, and his richest characters are those who don’t fit into the town’s admittedly narrow status quo. Peggy’s only son Earl (Gary Pierce), known affectionately as Brother Boy, is locked up in the local mental institution because he dresses like his idol Tammy Wynette, and he’s only allowed to wear his perfectly coiffed wig every day if he participates in sessions of cruel conversion therapy.
Latrelle’s son Ty (John Michael Collins), a 20-something actor living in California, is also gay and in therapy (in fact, he’s gone through 27 therapists in the last three years). Through Ty’s psychiatric confessionals, which serve as running narration throughout the show, we learn that he’s intensely attached to his mother, despite the fact that she refuses to acknowledge his sexuality.
The play’s first act is the more outrageous of the two (it earns its “adults only” disclaimer within the opening two minutes), culminating in an uproarious episode in which LaVonda and GW’s scorned wife Noleta (Whitney Huskey) humiliate a group of men at gunpoint in a “Thelma and Louise”-inspired rage. Act 2, save for a few comic outbursts, is far more wistful and contemplative, but that shift in tone isn’t nearly as jarring as you might think it’d be.
A lot of that has to do with Babbitt’s cast, which is excellent all around. Shores’ characters are riddled with dramatic traps: They’ve got big accents, big hair and big personalities, and the script gives the actors plenty of opportunities to ham it up in the worst way. But there’s a subtlety to these performances that I wasn’t expecting, and the actors make their characters feel real and lived in. Don’t be surprised if you get a bit choked up when Ty finally confronts his mother, or when a friendship develops between Brother Boy and Wardell (Jhon Goodwin), the local bartender who used to torment him.
The key to the success of “Sordid Lives” is that, despite the broad, nearly cartoonish nature of its subject, it takes its characters seriously. Shores is certainly poking fun at the denizens of Winters, but it’s clear that he also has tremendous affection for them. This show is surprisingly touching, almost disarmingly so, and when it goes for emotion, it actually earns it.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.