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Southern Baptist Sissies

The New York premiere of Del Shores' play, about four young gay men coming of age at a conservative Christian church, is only intermittently successful.

By New York City
Jack Phillips Moore, Tyler Etheridge,
Aaron Wester, and Anthony Orneta
in Southern Baptist Sissies
(© Kelly Marsh/BrainSpunk Theater)
Jack Phillips Moore, Tyler Etheridge,
Aaron Wester, and Anthony Orneta
in Southern Baptist Sissies
(© Kelly Marsh/BrainSpunk Theater)
"This is where we learned to hate ourselves," says one of the four young gay male protagonists in Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies, specifically referencing the Calvary Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas where they all came of age. But while the play's subject matter is timely, director Elmer King's uneven production at the June Havoc Theatre is only intermittently successful.

Mark (Tyler Etheridge), an angry young writer, is the play's primary narrator, talking directly to the audience throughout the play. However, we also hear from Benny (Anthony Orneta) who progresses from flamboyant gay boy to even more flamboyant drag queen; TJ (Jack Phillips Moore), whose initial gay male experiences scare him right back into the closet; and Andrew (Aaron Wester), who makes a fateful decision that leads to the work's climax.

Moore is the standout amongst the four, delivering his lines with passion and conviction, while still suggesting fear and uncertainty just below the surface. Orneta physically commits to, but still doesn't quite sell, his performances as drag queen Iona Traylor, which seem to stretch on for too long a time. Etheridge and Wester each have moments that work, but neither is convincing when they have to tap into deeper reservoirs of emotion.

Shores' monologues contain some funny lines and provocative passages, such as Mark's speech about how he found depictions of Jesus physically attractive. But the playwright also indulges in melodramatic devices and an over-written prose style.

Several exchanges between an older gay man nicknamed Peanut (the amusing Daniel McHenry) and a heterosexual barfly named Odette (the overly labored Rebecca Smith) seem superfluous, slowing the momentum of the show and only tangentially intersecting with the stories of the four men. Scenes between a preacher (Collin Biddle) and the mothers of the various men (all played rather shallowly by Eileen Maher) also tend to drag, but at least they're more relevant to the plot.

It seems certain that additions to the text of the play (which premeired in Los Angeles over 10 years ago) to include mentions of political figures such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are indicative of a desire to tie the show's message, about the impact of homophobia within conservative Christian communities, to a larger national conversation. But while the effort is well-intentioned, I wish both the play and production were better realized.


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