Playwright-screenwriter Del Shores (“Sordid Lives,” “Cheatin’,” “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will”) has made a career out of mining his Southwestern Bible Belt roots. His latest stage play is the fifth installment in his series of Texas comedies, two of which have made it to the bigscreen: “Daddy’s Dyin’ …” (1990) and the soon-to-be-released “Sordid Lives.” Despite an outstanding ensemble and Shores’ fluid, energetic staging, “Southern Baptist Sissies” is more cathartic than comedic as he probes relentlessly into the monumental fear and guilt suffered by four squeaky clean church-loving WASP boys as each discovers his natural urges are an abomination to his reactionary church and tradition-bound family.
Shores makes his point many times too often that Southern America’s ultra-conservative religious tradition has relentlessly indicted those who deviate from its strict biblical interpretation of what constitutes a good and moral life. Narrated by maniacally self-righteous Mark (Robert Louis Stephenson), the production follows Mark and his three Baptist choir-singing boyhood friends — T.J. (Tate Taylor), Andrew (Sam A. McConkey) and Benny (Michael Taylor Gray) — as they attempt to justify their preferred lifestyle with their deeply ingrained love of church and family.
Acting as a kind of inebriated Greek chorus to the proceedings are diminutive, aging queen Preston “Peanut” LeRoy (Leslie Jordon) and good-ol’-broad Odette (Ann Walker), whose periodic jaundiced views on life are as hilarious as they are sad. Hanging out nightly at the piano bar of the local gay bistro, this pair of losers-in-life does more to project the comedy and tragedy of living a life of self-inflicted guilt than all the callow “gnashing of teeth” by the aforementioned lads.
The performances, however, are first rate. Stephenson’s Mark exudes a palpable fury as he rages against the religious hypocrisy that would cause any human being to feel he or she didn’t deserve the love of God. Taylor offers a moving portrayal as Mark’s youthful love interest, T.J., who decides to sublimate his homosexual urges for the safety and security of living a heterosexual life within the church’s blessing.
McConskey effectively projects the monumental guilt and sadness of Andrew, who would rather take his own life than face his mother (Rosemary Alexander) after she learns the truth.
Gray turns in the most refreshing performance of the evening as the outrageous, thoroughly unapologetic queen-from-birth Benny, who was practicing drag routines by the time he was 12. Transformed into “country diva” entertainer, Iona Traylor, Benny offers dead-on lip-synched portrayals of such artists as Dolly Parton and Wynonna Judd. Gray also manages to project the underlying fear of someone who is consistently insisting that he is thoroughly happy.
Punctuating the work are the awe-inspiring sermons of the Preacher, performed with dead-on conviction by Newell Alexander. In one of the comedic highlights of the evening, the Preacher rails fervently against the commercial icons (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, etc.), that have infested religious holidays. Newell Alexander truly inhabits the persona of this thoroughly good man who cannot accept any deviation from the teachings of the Bible as he understands them.
Rosemary Alexander, portraying each of the boys’ mothers, projects a palpable anguish: Her characters do not understand how their son could turn out the way they have and are powerless to do anything about it. Also deserving mention is keyboardist Joe Patrick Ward, who seamlessly segues from being a “by the hymnal” church service accompanist to the ever-swinging gay bar pianist who underscores the boozy patter of Peanut and Odette.
The imaginative sets, lights and sound of John Hagen and Alkali Flats; Kathi O’Donohue; and Hagen and Ryan Brandle, respectively, do much to facilitate the dramatic flow between the church and gay bar settings.