Finally, 'Sordid'

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Thursday May 11, 2017
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Three generations of a dysfunctional small-town Texas family (Luke Brady, Marie O'Donnell, Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley, Scott Cox) gather for the funeral of their elderly matriarch in Sordid Lives at New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Three generations of a dysfunctional small-town Texas family (Luke Brady, Marie O'Donnell, Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley, Scott Cox) gather for the funeral of their elderly matriarch in Sordid Lives at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The author of "Sordid Lives" couldn't quite believe it when he heard that his play is only now having its San Francisco premiere. "Isn't it crazy that it's never been done there?" marveled playwright Del Shores. "There have been so many productions of 'Sordid Lives' that I had to check with Samuel French to make sure. But, sure enough, after 20 years, it is the San Francisco premiere."

This seems natural territory for the comedy, which has always had a core gay fan-base that grew considerably when the film adaptation was released a few years later, and prompted more theaters to stage the original play. Meanwhile, New Conservatory Theatre Center had produced two of Shores' later plays, "Southern Baptist Sissies" and "Yellow," and he had become a big fan of the theater and Artistic Director Ed Decker. "Every time they'd do another of my plays, I'd say to Ed, you know, you still haven't done 'Sordid Lives.' It is a little lighter, a littler fluffier than the meatier plays they have done of mine, so maybe that's it."

Decker himself, briefly cornered at a recent opening at New Conservatory, could come up with no particular reason why the Shores play with the most obvious commercial appeal had been passed over for so many seasons. "I guess I'm just stupid," he joked. But whatever the dynamics of putting together seasons of plays, "Sordid Lives" finally found its place in the current series. Performances begin on May 12, with Dennis Lickteig directing a cast playing the colorfully dysfunctional residents of a small Texas town who must come together for the funeral of a local matriarch, who died in a freak accident during a tryst with a considerably younger and most certainly married man.

Just as "Sordid Lives" is about to make its local theatrical debut, the sequel to the movie, "A Very Sordid Wedding," will soon have its Bay Area premiere. Shores and his producing partner and cast member Emerson Collins have been rolling out the movie city by city, often showing up for opening-night festivities. "I say we're on a dog-and-pony kind of tour," Shores said recently from Los Angeles. "We do have a broker, but it's a bit like do-it-yourself distribution, which works much better for us than having a regular distributor who takes most of the money."

Shores expects to have an exact date soon for a run at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, but he acknowledges that he wanted to have the premiere engagement in San Francisco. "We were hoping to do at least one night at the Castro, and then move it into an indie house, but the Castro said no, which was surprising to me. We did two or three episodes from the TV series in 2008 during Frameline at the Castro, and they sold out. There are only a few theaters in each city that book independent films, and you just have to wait until there is an open slot."

From the original stage production that opened in Los Angeles in 1996, to the 2000 movie, to the 2008 Logo TV series, and now to "A Very Sordid Wedding," many of the characters have remained the same while the performers have transitioned over time. One constant has been Leslie Jordan, perhaps the most memorable of all the "Sordid" characters, who has played the Tammy Wynette-channeling Brother Boy in all his incarnations. Institutionalized for his cross-dressing fantasies, he escapes long enough to become part of the mayhem surrounding the funeral for the god-fearin' but sexually adventurous Peggy.

One of the major among many subplots involves the character Ty Williamson, a young man who moved from small-town Texas to West Hollywood as an aspiring actor and emerging gay man. He's back for the funeral, and trying to summon the nerve to tell his keeping-up-appearances mother about his sexual orientation. In "A Very Sordid Wedding," it is Ty's planned nuptials in Winters, Texas, that has the town astir.

Shores grew up in Winters, a town in central Texas with a population of under 2,500 whose nearest big town is Abilene about an hour's drive away. His mother was a high school drama teacher and father a Southern Baptist preacher, and his own story most clearly mirrors Ty's in the play. After graduating from Baylor University in 1980, he headed straight for Los Angeles to become an actor. Conflicted about his sexuality, he tried to live a heterosexual life, getting married and having two daughters.

He had come out to his now ex-wife by the time "Sordid Lives" was getting ready to open in Los Angeles in 1996 - and to his wife's surprise, her parents took roles in the stage version, screen version, TV version, and now the sequel. Newell Alexander plays a homophobic bartender who happens to be the object of Brother Boy's affections, and Rosemary Alexander plays the psychiatrist trying to de-homosexualize Brother Boy to further her ambitious agenda.

"My youngest daughter lives up in San Francisco, and she is a big fan of my work," Shores said. "Whenever I perform standup up there, she brings all her friends," he said. "She's 24 now, so when she was just a little girl and the play premiered, I would have to walk my kids in and out of the theater. There was just things they couldn't see. She's very excited to see 'Sordid Lives' all the way through again."

Sordid Lives will run at NCTC through June 11. Tickets available at (415) 861-8972 or at nctcsf.org.