What’s it like to be part of a society that teaches you to hate and reject yourself? You don’t have to be gay to experience this kind of cognitive dissonance. Likewise, you don’t have to be part of a society that is Baptist or even “Southern.” We all experience conflicting pushes and pulls in our “brief hour upon the stage,” and Theatre in the Park production of Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies gives us a two-hour glimpse into the personal experiences of a half-dozen fellow humans as they struggle to come to grips with these conflicts in life.
Four of these folks are young gay men who have been taught that being gay is a mortal sin. (The four young men are all quite endearing. Each actor is able to invite us into his character’s soul, where we are able to feel as well as see his conflicts.)
For those who have never been inside a Baptist church: be aware that scenic and lighting designer Thomas Mauney sets the stage by giving us a perfect replica. The pulpit, the flags, the picture of Jesus-on-the-cross … even the placards on the wall that give the order of worship (complete with a list of way-too-many hymns) — it’s all there.
Scene changes are easily accomplished by shifting the lighting to a smaller office set, located stage left and to a table-with-two-stools situated stage right. And just a bit of rearranging easily converts the congregation’s pews into a runway for a burlesque show. These shifts were often so incredibly smooth; and our attention was so focused on the first scene, that the characters seemed to have magically appeared onstage in the new scene rather than entering from offstage.
If Mauney’s set were not enough to place us squarely in the sanctuary, the opening hymn augments the feeling, and the entrance of The Preacher completes the illusion. Dr. Bob Harris plays this cleric (who is never named) “to a T.” He’s got the voice, the attitude, and the posture.
Harris strikes the right poses even to the point of interacting with a few random members of the audience; that’s right: we are part of the congregation. Self-righteous? Yes, but well-meaning. This is a world in which everyone must constantly be reminded of what one must do in order to “get to heaven.” And supplying these constant reminders is his job. A scene in his office with a woman from the congregation is poignantly funny as well as revealing. To Harris’ credit, his portrayal of the character never descends into parody or cartoon-ish-ness.
This woman from the congregation is the mother of one of the boys. Diane Petteway artfully portrays her (in addition to two other mothers). This character is overtly a woman-of-the-world and is easily the funniest of Petteway’s characters. While this scene is, indeed, comic relief, it helps flesh out the picture of the community. The other moms that Petteway plays are distinctively different from this character. Like the Preacher, they are well-meaning although misguided.
Speaking of comic relief, Chris Milner and Martie Todd Sirois regale us with several short scenes in a local bar. Milner plays Reston Leroy (a.k.a. “Peanut”). He is a middleaged, overtly gay man. Sirois plays Odette Annette Barnet, a woman who is also middleaged. Their conversations are rollickingly funny but also revealing at moments. Presumably, their lives show possible end-results of the tug-of-war raging in the souls of the younger men. These two are masters of comic (and non-comic) timing. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing and on the verge of sentimental tears at the same time.
What would a Baptist church be like without a pianist? Likewise, what would a gay bar be like without a man at the keys? Brent Simpson gives us both Brother Charley and Houston. Quick costume changes and subtle changes in posture differentiate the two characters. Locked in place behind the piano, Simpson relies on (upper-)body language and facial expressions to add his punctuations to the scenes.
Brent Blakesley plays Mark Lee Fuller, our “guide,” as-it-were, into this world. This character opens the play’s debate by dramatizing an internal monologue between the Preacher’s words and his character’s feelings and intuitions. Blakesley is able to move deftly between addressing the audience, talking to “himself,” and interacting with the other characters.
Benoit Sabouran plays T.J. Brooks. His character is the most outwardly conflicted — conflicted to the point of vehemently denying being gay. At key points, he quotes Old Testament anti-gay scripture. Sabouran’s delivery of these lines makes sure that we get the impression that the character is unconvinced of the truth of the scripture yet desperately trying to believe and even more desperately trying to adhere to the “straight”-and-narrow.
Sabouran also plays a Male Stripper. Yes, he has the right physique. And, yes, he can dance.
Thomas Porter plays Andrew Thomas Ford. This character takes the “penitent sinner” approach to “correcting” himself. Of all the characters, Andrew is the one who dwells the most on the subject of eternal salvation vs. damnation to the “lake of fire” and “gnashing of teeth.” Porter shows a man desperately trying to be what he “knows” that he must be, hoping that going through the motions of “accepting Jesus” will “save” him. Porter makes the job look easy as he shares the depths of character’s pain and, ultimately, a measure of joy.
Edward Freeman rounds out the quartet as Benny. Of the young men, this character struck us as the most effeminate and possibly the least uncomfortable with his identity.
Freeman also plays a drag queen: “Miss Iona Traylor.” And he serves up equal parts of erotic and funny. Like Peanut and Odette, Iona’s character might be a hint about possible futures for the conflicted youth.
But the main character in this production is situated upstage center for the entire play. This character is Jesus-on-the-Cross. We are not sure if it was the intention of Shores (the playwright), Henderson (the director), Mauney (the scenic and lighting designer), or even Elaine Brown (the quite-able costume designer), but we sifted out a distinct message. Ours is a society that is presided over by a blatant misrepresentation of Jesus. And we felt guided to this impression by some of the onstage costume changes. That is, at key times there were moments when the audience’s attention is focused on a young man (or men) dressed only in white jockey-shorts.
Was it a subtlety in the lighting? The blocking? Or even the lines? We are unsure. What we do know is this: We felt obliged to consider a parallel between this portrayal of Jesus-on-the-cross and these young men, a parallel that can, ultimately, be drawn to all of us.
The picture is blatantly inaccurate. It shows us a perfectly clean, perfect body dressed in a perfectly clean loin cloth. We instinctively know (but have never articulated) that a picture such as this could not possibly depict an actual crucifixion. (A rather more accurate term for this painting would be “cruci-fiction”). And it was the visual parallel to the jockey-shorts only characters that gave rise to that feeling. Add to this inaccuracy the fact that Jesus himself has never been quoted (or even misquoted) as anti-gay, and the play’s central message is forcefully driven home.
Although the play’s title is Southern Baptist Sissies, it could just as easily been relocated to many other sections of the country and been given a different name, such as “Minnesota-Norwegian Lutheran Wimps.” The message is universal.
Our Department of Pickey-Pickey felt that the play was a bit longer than it needed to be — the second act did seem to drag just a little. But we are unable, constructively, to make any specific suggestions.
There are only two more performances of this play — at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Sept. 24th, and Sunday, Sept. 25th. If neither salty language nor brief nudity are problematic, come on down!
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 23rd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8136; Sept. 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article103784551.html 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; and Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/southern-baptist-sissies/Event?oid=5057769. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 23rd Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/09/southern-baptist-sissies-provides-a-witty-cathartic-ending-for-tips-three-week-repertory-run/.)
Theatre in the Park presents SOUTHERN BAPTIST SISSIES at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 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).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.