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Sordid Lives at NCTC poster

“White trash! That’s what I am, and proud of it!”
– Dolly Parton, interview with The Evening Standard, 5 December 2007

It’s a tricky situation, approaching fan-favorite material as a complete outsider. On one hand, you lack the long-term devotion and ancillary knowledge of the material to enjoy it the same way as its devoted following. On the other hand, your lacking the traits of a devotee means you’re experiencing the material from a fresh perspective that a longtime fan could almost never recapture.

I walked into NCTC’s production of Del Shores’ Sordid Lives knowing nothing about the play’s history, nor of the mini-franchise it spawned (with a 2000 film adaptation, a spin-off tv series, and a planned sequel supposedly in pre-production). I thought it a cute touch that the ticket-takers wore denim pants, patterned shirts, and ten-gallon hats (I didn’t bother to look and see if they wore boots). If anything, I was just struck by the meticulous “down home” décor of the living room set, flanked on both sides by a split-painting representation of the Texas flag. As I took my seat to hear a playlist of TX-themed country playing over the theatre speakers, I just took it to mean that NCTC was really running with the setting of this play.

It wasn’t until the play began and certain and a pair of audience members behind me kept reciting the dialogue in-sync with the actors that I began to catch on. It was never at Rocky Horror-levels – hell, I thought the guys behind me knew the dialogue because they’d done an earlier production – but it was clear that folks in this crowd had a built-in affinity for this story and these characters. But I can’t say that I’m likely to join that cult any time soon.

Sordid Lives at NCTC set

Lone Star State, top-notch set. Set by Kuo-Hao Lo. Photo by Me.

It’s bad enough that the Williamson family lost their beloved matriarch, but for her to have died in such an embarrassing fashion is almost too much to bear. As three generations of her family gather to bicker, bluster, and bring up family secrets under the guise of mourning, the luckiest one of all may be the woman about to go in the ground.

As I sat watching this 20-year-old play, I began scribbling titles in the margins of my notebook. They included the tv shows Mama’s Family, Designing Women, The Golden Girls, and the play-turned-film Steel Magnolias. All of the aforementioned titles are centered around Southern women and have large Gay followings. In fact, with the exception of Mama’s Family, all of them have been (or currently are) in regular rotation on Logo. Whether by design or circumstance, Sordid Lives falls square into this unique sub-genre. The difference is that it has nothing with which it can distinguish itself from the others.

Now as a Straight, cis-gendered, Black man born and raised in Northern California, it’s safe to say that I was no more the intended audience for this material than its regular devotees would be for Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. As such, I’m left no other choice than to examine the script on its own merits, in which case it’s incredibly lacking. Unable to reach Tennessee Williams-esque melodrama, Shores settles for sitcom-lite low-hanging fruit that often falls flat. We’re watching caricatures more characters, which makes it hard to genuinely care for them when the play aims for real pathos. Whenever a serious moment arises – say, GW insulting Noleta, even as she holds him at gunpoint – Shores doesn’t have the courage to follow through with the natural conclusion for such an event. The forced happy ending is less character progression and more the writer not wanting things to end on a downer.

Only the soliloquies of Ty – the closeted Gay son who escaped to NY to become an actor, and is terrified to return home for his grandmother’s funeral – hint at a much-better-written story we can’t see in its entirety. Like I said, the story aspires to be Steel Magnolias (also written by an openly-Gay writer), but can’t quite reach that play’s hilariously operatic goals.

With a script constantly ping-ponging between high camp and sappy family drama, director Dennis Lickteig clearly had his work cut out for him. By not fully committing to either tone, the production often floats in a state of limbo in which its inoffensive to look at, but fails to leave a lasting impression. To Lickteig’s credit, I believe he made the right choice by directing his cast in a broad, sitcom-y style.

As with all of the aforementioned titles above, it’s the women who steal the show. Although the men are a mixed bag (save for Scott Cox as institutionalized drag queen Brother-Boy), each woman in this cast wears her role like a finely-tailored glove. From Shannon Kase’s too-often-done-wrong Noleta to the hillbilly bar musical interludes of Amy Meyers’ Bitsy Mae, each plays her role with a personality as large as her hair (courtesy of wig-maker David Carver-Ford). Marie O’Donnell – who electrified the stage this past March in Kilgallen/Jones – keeps Latrelle much more grounded than the script would have her be. Having worked with Cat Luedtke, I can’t objectively critique her LaVonda, but I will say I was impressed by how well the British actress took to the Texan accent. Speaking of accents, Melissa O’Keefe’s intentionally wavering accent as Dr. Bolinger is the sort of great character work that shows an actor understands a role better than the writer.

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On the technical side, there’s nothing to disappoint. In addition to Carver-Ford’s wigs, Wes Crain’s equally trashy costumes give a great deal of character to these would-be Jerry Springer guests of a cast.  Ryan Lee Short’s sounds and Ting Na Wang’s props have a perfect moment when Noleta shoots as a sign off of a bar wall. Speaking of that bar wall… the photo at the top is from Kuo-Hao Lo’s set as it appears in its living room form at the top of the show. Over the course of the play, the upstage wall rotates three times, Noises Off!-style, and is redressed to become a bar, a doctor’s office, and a funeral parlor. It’s done so effortlessly, it looks like magic – and I watch each transition happen. High marks to Lo and crew for that excellent work.

The fandom that supports the Sordid Lives franchise clearly isn’t for me, but those who knew the material well appeared to very much enjoy themselves. Perhaps part of its appeal lies in its cartoonishly schizophrenic tonal shifts and contradictory developments of character and plot? After all, what makes a cult classic so is that it doesn’t appeal to a particularly wide audience. Rather, those who discover a fellow cult member are comforted by the thought they aren’t alone in their peculiarities. And if your tastes veer toward a pair of good ol’ boys in women’s make-up dancing to Patsy Cline at gunpoint, this might just be the show for you.

GRADE:                C

Sordid Lives is scheduled to run until the 11th of June at New Conservatory in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2½ hours, including one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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