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Sordid Lives
Adobe Theater

Sordid Lives
Janine O'Neill
Sordid Lives opens with a single spotlight on a young woman with a guitar on an otherwise dark stage. Dressed in a sexy honky-tonk outfit, she sings a country ballad of our "sordid lives." Janine O'Neill as Bitsy Mae Harling nails the character who sings a song to open each of the four acts in this 1996 comedy by Del Shores. While the guitar was out of tune, the songs set scene wonderfully, and O'Neill's voice is both vulnerable and clear.

Next we see Ty Williamson, a young actor in New York who is alone in a chair on the dark stage. Again, one spotlight. Ty, played sensitively by Logan Mitchell, is speaking a monologue to an unseen psychologist, his 27th therapist in three years. He's gay and he's worried about coming out. Ty's monologues effectively follow the singer at the opening of each act.

The lights come on and the complicated action begins in the home of Sissy Hickey (Catherine "Cat" Hubka in an excellent stage debut). This small Texas town is in an uproar. Sissy's older sister, Peggy, has just died. She fell over G.W. Nethercott's two wooden legs in their love-nest hotel room and her head hit the sink. G.W. (a solid J. Mark Danley as the Vietnam vet) is the husband of Sissy's best friend, Noleta (played in goofy fury by Lorri Oliver).

Peggy's death turns the town on its head, bringing ghosts out of the closet and driving belly-laugh comedy. The young actor Ty, who has been working in soap operas, struggles with the idea of coming home for his grandmother's funeral. Ty is aware that Peggy also had her gay transvestite son—Ty's uncle—committed to an insane asylum 20 years earlier for being homosexual. This is not exactly a friendly town for gays, and Ty's tired of hiding his true self.

Under the confident direction by Robb Anthony Sisneros, a veteran of more than 40 local productions, the story holds together as it gets increasingly complicated. Noleta and Peggy's daughter LaVonda (a full-energy Laura Nuzum) get revenge Thelma-and-Louise-style on G.W. and his two buddies Wardell and Odell because G.W. left his legs where Peggy could trip over them. While all this is occurring, Lacey Bingham as barfly Juanita Bartlett nearly steals the act with her timing-perfect asides (at least half of the many laughs in this act come from Juanita's asides).

Sisneros' direction keeps the action building act through act, no small feat with a play that can go wrong in many places. Recent productions around the country have been criticized for sagging middle acts, uneven ensembles, out-of-date cultural references, and the weird blend of comedy and the serious subject of crushing homophobia. Sisneros' deftly avoids these trap doors and delivers a trashy romp with heart.

Part of the success is in the casting. While there are strong performances—Mitchell as Ty, Brian Clifton as Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram, and Scott Schuster as Wardell—the ensemble itself wins the day. Sisneros manages the pacing to avoid a potential mid-story slump.

The third act is pure joy. Brother Boy was sent to a mental hospital 20 years earlier after he was beaten up by his close buddy Wardell when Brother Boy revealed he had a crush on his friend. Brother Boy was institutionalized by Peggy, and Wardell has been feeling guilty ever since. Act three opens with Brother Boy in his 68th session of a dehomosexualization program run by a self-serving, alcoholic psychologist, Dr. Eve Bolinger (played with colorful enthusiasm by Holly Adams). The program isn't going well.

Dr. Bolinger tries to flip Bother Boy by seducing him. Brother Boy has become a full-out transvestite, modeling himself on Tammy Wynette. He is desperate to get out of the institution, so he tries his best to go along with the doctor's program. Dr. Bolinger's seduction nearly makes him puke. He abandons the program in disgust and defeat. Clifton's performance is powerful in its comedy—big, big laughs, the high point of a very funny show—but also in its pathos.

Like the movie it references, Thelma and Louise, this story is an odd blend. It shows how homophobia can crush lives. There is also a large dose of comedy that approaches Three Stooges. The performances are funniest when they verge on cartoonish. Sisneros, with his tight (and generous) ensemble, make this odd mix a blast.

Sordid Lives by Del Shores is playing at the Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth St. NW, through July 31. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. General admission is $14. Senior and student tickets are $12. For reservations, call 505-898-9222. For more information, visit www.adobetheater.org.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area


Photo: Ossie Werner

-- Rob Spiegel



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