Delta Burke and David Ojalvo
in Southern Baptist Sissies
(© Rosemary Alexander)
Delta Burke and David Ojalvo
in Southern Baptist Sissies
(© Rosemary Alexander)
Los Angeles theatergoers have known and loved the Texan white trash characters of writer/director Del Shores ever since his first play Cheatin hit the stage in 1984. Now the rest of the country will get to experience Shores' two biggest hits, as his 1996 play Sordid Lives and his 2000 hit Southern Baptist Sissies, go on the road for a mini-tour -- starring television favorites Delta Burke and Leslie Jordan (a 2006 Emmy Award winner for his role as Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace). And if the tour's kick-off in San Diego last weekend is any indication, audiences will be sore from laughing and will be repeating Shore's sparkling dialogue for days afterwards.

Thanks to the cult status the 2002 film and resultant DVD have earned, seeing Sordid Lives on stage now feels akin to attending a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The majority of the audience already knows these characters (and the actors portraying many of them) from the film. They hoot and holler from their first entrance, often say some of the choicest one-liners along with the actors, and even sing along with the singer (Sean Wiggins) on the title tune. The actors, many of whom are recreating their roles from the 1996 production, simply stay in character and just go with the flow. The result is a comedy with real oomph!

The play was Shores' own coming out manifesto, and the character of young Ty (Jason Dottley) is seen in sessions with his 27th therapist in three years discussing his homosexuality. The in-the-closet-to-his-family Ty is debating whether he should return to small-town Texas for his grandmother's funeral -- a double dilemma since she had her own 18-year-old son committed to an insane asylum when she discovered he was gay and a transvestite. Indeed, Brother Boy (Jordan, who is a perfectly nuanced yet utterly campy delight) is currently undergoing dehomosexualization by Dr. Eve (Rosemary Alexander), who hopes to write a best seller about her success and get on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, Brother Boy can only think of his wig and his next performance as Tammy Wynette.

The other family members don't have a much tighter grip on reality. Ty's mother Latrelle (Mary-Margaret Lewis) is a very tightly wound bundle of denial, while her trash-talking sister LaVonda (Ann Walker) denies nothing but rather flaunts it. Their Aunt Sissy (Dale Dickey) tries to be the voice of reason. Neighbors G.W. (Mitch Carter) -- the ribald cause of grandma's demise -- -and his zaftig wife Noleta (Patrika Darbo) have serious marital problems. Things get settled at the funeral when everything comes flying out of the closet in this madcap farce, directed precisely for the laughs by Shores.

Southern Baptist Sissies was Shores' response to the Matthew Shepard murder, and it's his most mature and well-written play. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and place as Mark (David Ojalvo) tells the story of four young men in a Baptist choir and the different roads they took with their developing homosexuality.

Mark is the angry young man, railing against society and religion that breeds intolerance, just as much as the hellfire minister (Newell Alexander) rants and raves against sin and sinners. T.J. (Ted Detwiler), the love of Mark's life, tries to live the straight life. The torn Andrew (a sensitive performance by Rich Delia) tries to alternately explore his urges and submerge them, inevitably leading to tragedy. And then there is Benny (Emerson Collins) who embraces his inner homo and becomes drag performer Iona Traylor.

The heaviness of the plot is offset by the inspired comic banter between barflies and former Baptists Preston "Peanut" Leroy (Jordan) and Odette Annette Barnett (Dickey). Their comic misfortunes will leave you gasping for breath as you laugh yourself silly at their shenanigans. Collins adds to the humor doing his country divas Dolly, Wynonna, and Tina Turner. As for Burke, she delivers a varied and nuanced performance as three of the boys' mothers.

Shores' direction of the play -- which is definitely the crowning jewel in his crown -- is a bit lax at times; in particular, several of the monologues have a "major speech" feel to them. Moreover, adding dancers, strippers and singers for the road tour only prolongs the evening, pushing the play to a three-hour running time. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.