A mere two weeks ago, Theatre in the Park began its presentation of a trio of plays: Sam Shepard’s True West, which ran Sept. 8-11; John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, which ran Sept. 15-18; and Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, which runs tonight through Sunday, Sept. 25th. (Please click here to read my reviews of True West and Almost, Maine, if you missed them!)
The third and final stop of Theatre in the Park’s exploration of three U.S. regions (we’ve been to California and Maine) brings us to Dallas, Texas, where we experience firsthand the trials and tribulations of four gay boys raised in the Southern Baptist Church, as they attempt to avoid the weeping and gnashing of teeth awaiting them in Hell. A nonlinear tornado of vignettes and monologues give us a glimpse into their world.
Southern Baptist Sissies is written by American author Del Shores, who is best known for plays — and screen adaptations of — Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s Got the Will? and Sordid Lives, both of which include autobiographical elements. In 2000, he adapted the latter into a television series for the LGBT-focused cable channel Logo. His lesser-known, but award-winning works include Cheatin’ and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife.
Southern Baptist Sissies, a tragicomedy, opened in Los Angeles in 2000, and was the most awarded L.A. play of the year, including a 2001 GLAAD Media Award for outstanding L.A. production. A live taping of the show was released on DVD in 2013, and holds an 80 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Like Shores’ other works, Southern Baptist Sissies is full of high camp, gay in-jokes, drunken queens, raunchy sexual humor, and some good ol’ Southern trash talking.
Theatre in the Park’s production of this play highlights these elements, of course. But the heart of the play is pushed to the forefront in David Henderson’s cathartic and passionate production. Early portions of the show felt a bit awkward and mistimed; but the rest of the production was well-paced and clearly staged, and character dynamics were intriguing and precise. Henderson made some very bold decisions with his staging and audience interaction, and it paid off with a 2.5 hour show that was tight, crisp, and ended at just the right moment.
Brent Blakesley is given the daunting task of steering this complex vessel, and he stepped up to the ship’s wheel with confidence. After a rocky first few minutes, Blakesley settled and found his rhythm. A few minor line stumbles could not distract from his articulate and sympathetic performance as our humble narrator, Mark Lee Fuller, who has an enormous amount of text to maneuver.
Blakesley’s portrayal is intelligent and vibrant, though perhaps not as naturalistic as some of the other guys. But Brent Blakesley should be commended for mastering a role that puts an actor into a vulnerable and … um, naked … position.
Speaking of naked positions, our narrator’s love interest, Benoit Sabourin plays the conflicted, closeted T.J. Brooks, in addition to the Male Stripper at a local Dallas gay bar. One notices his masculine physique first (he is cut like a diamond), but the characters — and the audience — come to realize the delicate, insecure boy beneath.
In his TIP debut, Sabourin has terrific honesty and strength, and proves that T.J. is the play’s most accurately written depiction of the crippling fear and anxiety that many queer youth face, especially those raised in conservative religious environments. In addition to acting chops, his dance skills are put to fine use in the gay bar scenes. Any actor taking on this role must face physical exposure in front of an audience; and, regardless of one’s physical appearance, it is never an easy thing to do.
Longtime TIP actor Thomas Porter provides our catharsis as Christian twentysomething Andrew Thomas Ford. Porter keeps Andrew far away from gay cliché, and creates a dynamic character, never wearing shades of false emotion.
Edward Freeman is a daring Benny (a.k.a. drag queen “Iona Traylor”), a prime example of escapism from the harsh reality of homophobia and heteronormativity. Freeman’s effeminate physicality is specific and confident, strutting boldly across the stage; but his falsetto occasionally distracts and feels like “playing gay.” He engages the audience well, and switches sharply between Benny and his drag persona. The drag performance is acceptable, but could be much broader in the later portions of the show.
Diane Petteway plays three of the boys’ mothers, and each is uniquely defined. Mark’s sweet Suzy Homemaker mama balances Southern charm with a hint of barely contained hate, bless her heart. Petteway’s work as Benny’s trailer-trashy mom has its funny moments, but the give-and-take between this character and the Preacher feels unpolished. Petteway’s subtler work as Andrew’s older, troubled mother is the most heartfelt and moving of the three. With many years under her belt as a musical director at TIP, Petteway has emerged here as an actor of great skill.
Dr. Bob Harris gives the production’s most believable and grounded performance as the Preacher. Harris has obviously done his research, or just spent years watching Baptist preachers, because he is truly thrilling to watch, though in some of the quieter scenes, where he must balance the Comforting Pastor and Judgmental Priest, his timing is sometimes stunted. However, during the sermon scenes, he is engaging; and one almost converts on the spot. Almost.
While the first 15 minutes of the show felt a little stilted, like the cast wasn’t quite warmed up, things quickly became less awkward when we got a taste of Peanut. The funniest material in the show is written for Reston “Peanut” Leroy, a middle-aged queen who hangs around the bar, serving up world-weary shade. Chris Milner, in his third TIP production this season, inhabits Peanut with comedic mastery.
Subtlety is not the name of the game with this character, so it’s Go Big or Go Home, and Milner goes big. His dry delivery earns the show’s biggest laughs, and his tender moments some of its greatest heartbreak
His counterpart, loudmouthed bar fly Odette Annette Barnet, is played with equal parts comedic and dramatic prowess by Martie Todd Sirois, who instantaneously turns an audience’s laughter into tears and back again. When these two characters entered for their fourth scene together, they received enthusiastic applause from the crowd, who couldn’t wait to hear more from these zany characters.
With a quick costume switch, TIP veteran Brent Simpson plays church organist Brother Chaffey and gay bar jazz pianist Houston, both of whom are almost entirely silent for the whole play. Simpson’s double-takes and comedic face-pulling are just as engaging and hilarious as anything Milner and Sirois are up to. He plays especially well in silent moments with Peanut.
Scenic and lighting designer Thomas Mauney is due a well-earned vacation after this show closes, having designed all three productions this month. The church set, built by master carpenter Jeffrey Nugent, feels accurate, with a number of credible touches. However, the multipurpose office section feels underdeveloped.
Mauney’s color palette works very well for this production, and helps separate emotional shifts clearly. But quite a bit of the stage is left in the dark, and several important character moments are not sufficiently highlighted, including some of Blakesley’s monologues, and several peripheral goings-on.
Poor Brent Simpson spends most of his time in the shadows. It should be noted, though, that Almost, Maine closed only last Sunday, giving Mauney less than four days to get Southern Baptist Sissies loaded-in and focused. That all three shows have turned out looking as good as they have is an admirable achievement.
Elaine Brown really got to strut her stuff as costume designer on this show. True West was an easier task, with only a handful of costumes, while Almost, Maine dressed more than 20 characters. However, the work here is astonishing.
Every character has several changes, and three actors play multiple roles. From Baptist preacher to tacky Dallas drag queen to barely clad male stripper, Brown had to run the gamut. Quick changes abound in this production, but the pieces are bold and vibrant without distracting from the material. As far as costuming goes, this is the highlight of this month’s trio of plays. Elaine Brown, like Thomas Mauney, has been juggling three shows at once.
The strongest elements shared by all three of these “repertory” shows are the impressively skilled troupes of actors and Elaine Brown’s wonderful costumes. With a few scattered flaws here and there (some misdirection in True West, the wrong choice of play with Almost, Maine and some haphazard lighting in Southern Baptist Sissies), I think TIP has the right to call this month a success. The enthusiastic and roaring audience on Thursday night certainly supports Southern Baptist Sissies as a strong final destination on an ambitious three-stop tour.
This show is well into Rated R territory for language, sexual content, intensely emotional themes, and men’s butts.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/southern-baptist-sissies/Event?oid=5057769; and Sept. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Linda Haac, Roy C. Dicks, David Menconi, and Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99092812.html.
Theatre in the Park presents SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 24 and 3 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or http://www.etix.com/ticket/v/2482/ira-david-wood-iii-pullen-park-theatre-theatre-in-the-park.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
Southern Baptist Sissies (2000 comedy and 2013 film): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/777/southern-baptist-sissies (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2729818/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/SouthernBaptistSissies (Facebook page).
Del Shores (Winters, TX-born playwright and screenwriter): http://www.delshores.com/ (official website), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0794971/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Del_Shores (Wikipedia).
David Henderson (director): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/455982-david-henderson-2 (abouttheartists.com bio) and https://www.facebook.com/theatrescot (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.