Sordid Lives is one extraordinarily wacky play. If you were to draw lines between Tennessee Williams and John Waters, Eudora Welty and Benny Hill, Carson McCullers and the Monkees’ TV show, they might cross near Sordid Lives.
Sometimes subtitled “a black comedy about white trash,” it was adapted, in 2000, into a movie with Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges, Bonnie Bedelia, Delta Burke, and East Tennessee’s own consistently hilarious Leslie Jordan. It perplexed critics. Years later, in 2008, it became a cable series with some of the original principals. It lasted one season. It remains a cult phenomenon, which is one reason that, by the time you read this, Theatre Knoxville Downtown’s production of it, in the company’s 50-seat Gay Street home, may be mostly sold out. Unlike some cult phenomena, it has a point— basically, that everybody’s flawed, gay and straight people alike, and it’s all just part of the human comedy.
I saw the movie, some years ago. I actually prefer Theater Knoxville Downtown’s production.
In a small Texas community, a grandmother is trysting with a younger man, a double-amputee Vietnam veteran, when she trips over his wooden legs, hits her head, and dies. That trauma tears open a barely veiled mess of secrets, resentments, and hypocrisies. The man’s wife and the woman’s daughter are close friends. Two male family members are gay, one flamboyant and institutionalized for it (it would be interesting to know how recently that’s been going on), one young, living in New York and coming to terms with his identity. Dominating the cast of 12 are sharply defined, distinctly different, but mostly uninhibited women who don’t mind telling you what they’re thinking. I bet you’ve met several of them before.
Parts of the dialogue are clever, true, sometimes hilarious depictions of working people who have made an icon of popular culture and see themselves within an Olympian mythology of which George Jones and Tammy Wynette are the Zeus and Hera. If you think you’ve seen quite enough lampoons of dysfunctional small-town Southern family life—it’s a genre I was over by 1985 or so—this will still make you laugh.
Directed by Jim Richardson, this production marks Carol Goans’ return to the Knoxville stage. She was a familiar face in local theater some years ago, onstage and backstage, at Clarence Brown and an occasional Actors Co-Op production, before she left for California, where she appeared in plays and in several small but interesting movies. As Sissy, she gives the play a grounding, freeing the other characters to outdo each other for outrageousness. This production, unlike the original play, injects the walking non-sequitur Juanita (Bonny Baker Pendleton) into the bedlam. Of the female roles, Gary Mullins, as Brother Boy, the subject of an unsuccessful “dehomosexualization,” may take the crown.
But then come sudden developments that may not agree with your perceptions of how humans actually behave. The cheated-upon wife and an ally, inspired by Thelma and Louise, burst into a bar with loaded guns just to humiliate the woebegone adulterer and his friends. The whole exercise seems written mainly to set up some involuntary cross-dressing sight gags that were absolutely hilarious to some select members of the audience.
A perhaps squirmier moment occurs when Ty, up to then the play’s most sympathetic character, chooses to reveal his sexual preferences to his mother, upon his first encounter with her after his grandmother’s death, as she was contemplating her own mother’s open casket. Call me old-fashioned, but I might wait for the funeral reception to steal the show by revealing which sex I find more arousing.
Trying to see these as realistic or well-developed characters might be missing the point. The play can be seen as four absurdist skits, each (excepting perhaps the bar scene) with a little moral lesson.
An interesting touch of the play’s construction is that two characters, in a sort of refraction of Our Town, offer a sort of parallel narration, one in country song (Bitsy Mae, played by Angela Tweed, accompanying herself on guitar), one in personal confession (Ty, played by Josh Anderson), with the audience as psychologist.
Playwright Del Shores is from Texas and lives in California, but he has some interesting local connections. Knoxville actress/heroine Dale Dickey is a close friend and regular associate. She was an understudy in the original 1996 production of this play and played Sissy, a major character, in a later revival.
And three years ago, Shores challenged Knox County state Sen. Stacey Campfield to a national debate about homosexuality, prompted by our most famous elected official’s publicized declarations about the origins of AIDS and whether elementary-school children should be allowed to know that homosexuality exists.
Campfield responded that he would debate Shores only if he was paid $1,000 plus expenses. Shores responded it was a violation of ethics for a sitting politician to demand money to state his position. It was reportedly taken under advisement by state authorities. There’s an active petition to prosecute Campfield for demanding money to participate in a political dialogue.
Campfield’s persona might be slightly too bizarre to earn a place in a sequel to this play.