Lesser Tuna

Small-town life gets a brutal but hilarious going-over in Sordid Lives, Del Hughes' comedy playing at the Trinity River Arts Center. Make that small-town Texas life. The kind of small Texas town where men have big bellies, women have big hair and everybody has a big mouth.

This is the play that begat the movie of the same title. Critically panned, the film's become a cult fave on the midnight movie circuit. Think of it as Steel Magnolias without the death scene and with way more gay-centricity.

In Sordid Lives, somebody is dead before the play starts. In fictional Winters (out near Snyder), a nice old lady named Peggy has turned toes up in a not-so-nice way involving a seedy motel room, a married man and a pair of haphazardly strewn wooden legs. Her daughters, stuck-up Latrelle and slutty LaVonda, are miles apart on the funeral arrangements (something about the propriety of dressing Mama in a mink stole in the middle of a heat wave). And there's the married man's bedraggled wife Noleta to contend with. She just happens to be LaVonda's best friend.

That's one branch of the nutty, knotty family tree. There's also Ty, Latrelle's in-the-closet actor son, who tells his 27th therapist he'd rather be AWOL from his grandmother's funeral than face the wrath of his homo-hating relatives. The secret shame of this clan is Uncle Earl (a.k.a. Brother Boy), who's spent 23 years locked up in the local loony bin for dressing like his idol, Tammy Wynette.

Playing referee in the mayhem is Aunt Sissy, Peggy's spiky little sprite of a sister who unwisely has chosen this week to kick smoking.

Sordid Lives is what it is: high-energy low art with a Texas twang. Its sitcom premise is cliché, and its characters are as broadly drawn as the cartoon rednecks on TV's King of the Hill. But much of the time it's also knee-slappin', elbow-pokin', fan-yourself funny. And the 11 actors in the Uptown Players company wring the living daylights out of every line.

"Gawd! Even white trash feels sorry for me now," moans Noleta Nethercott, the sad creature whose husband's misplaced prosthetics have caused Peggy's demise.

There's lots of "trash" talk in the play. Whatever their status, these characters exist in a carefully defined caste system that sets them above those who don't earn their approval. Gays, ex-cons and honky-tonk gals share the lowest rung on their social ladder. The honky-tonkin' Bitsy Mae Harling is described as "the one who used to date blacks in high school." Another gal in town is dished by Sissy as being so fat "you could move in."

As Texana, Sordid Lives rings with the sort of up-home Lone Star utterances many of us recall from Sunday dinners with the country cousins. Playwright Hughes, who also wrote Daddy's Dyin' (Who's Got the Will), has a finely tuned ear for authentic-sounding Hee Haw-isms. When the grief-stricken amputee, G.W. Nethercott, tries the patience of his beer-swigging saloon pals, he's told, "Get off the cross, buddy. We need the wood."

What Sordid Lives does has been done before, and better. More than 20 years ago, Austin actor-writers Joe Sears and Jayston Williams did a lot of this in their brilliant two-hander Greater Tuna. Playing all the residents of tiny Tuna, Texas, Sears and Williams captured the small-town vernacular with wit, subtle physical changes and an astonishing variety of voices and accents. Before them, the late Dallas Theater Center playwright Preston Jones explored small-town Texas prejudices and ugly family squabbles in his Texas Trilogy.

Sordid Lives isn't up to the clever artistry of Tuna or the dramatic weight of the Trilogy (which includes Jones' finest play, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia). It gets too loud, too shrill, too broad. In the second act, which revolves around Brother Boy's "de-homosexualization therapy" up at the mental institution, it gets too silly. Only the fine performance of Ted Wold as Brother Boy--a linebacker dressed in a delicate chartreuse peignoir and fluffy mules--keeps this section from plunging too far into idiotic slapstick.

The rest of the company takes hold of the material and chews it like a $2 steak. There's subtler acting in the WWF. But dang, they're funny when they nail it.

Angela Wilson displays sharp comic timing as the explosive, beady-eyed LaVonda, whose partner in most scenes is the downtrodden Noleta, played on opening night by director Andi Allen after the sudden preshow illness of the actress cast in the role. The contrast between the bawdy confidence of LaVonda and the sodden unhappiness of Noleta makes them the two most interesting characters. But writer Hughes keeps them from really connecting with the audience by sending them off on a detour in Act 2, turning them into drunken, gun-toting Thelma and Louise hellions who hold up a liquor store.

Nye Cooper, a young Luke Perry type, is pretty but bland as Ty. His character opens each scene of the two acts with a monologue spoken to an unseen psychiatrist, episodes that serve as quiet breathers between the crazy bluster of the scenes before and after. Allyn Carrell is a stitch as the nicotine-deprived Sissy, doling out iced tea and Valium to her crazed family members. Steve Lovett gets plenty of mileage out of two roles: dumb-as-dirt barfly Odell, who amuses himself by stringing cat's cradles on his fingers, and toupee-topped Reverend Barnes, who tries in vain to conduct a dignified service for Peggy as chaos erupts in the chapel.

Costume designer Adam M. Dill has collected a crazy quilt of outfits for Sordid's citizens. A red fringed jacket here, a gigantic black lace mantilla there. Women decked out like sparkly Christmas trees. Men stripped down to wild-patterned boxers. In this comedy, the costumes get their own laughs.

Dill's wardrobe must have eaten up the design budget. Set designer-builder Andy Redmon offers only three flimsy flats, crudely sponge-painted and starkly dressed.

Oh, well, the characters are colorful enough on their own.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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