Citilites’ production is directed by GP Hunsaker, who is able to draw good to great performances from his actors, but has a little trouble with traffic control on the tiny stage at the Gaslight Theatre when his entire cast of 9 (or 10, if you count a couple of brief appearances by Devin Przgoda as the stripper in a gay bar) is present. Hunsaker also designed the set, encompassing the bar, a dressing room for “Iona Traylor” (Benny’s drag queen persona), the central presence of the church, the preacher’s office, and whole lot of other places upstage center. There are a lot of entrances and exits, and blocking must have been murder. Nice lighting work is provided by Steven J. Miller, but there seemed to be a pale spot upstage right. The church “window” is especially well-done, and becomes a metaphor late in the show.
The show begins before anyone is even onstage. “Mother” comes in and sits down in the front row of the audience, welcoming all of us to the “services.” Alice Kinsella has the occasionally difficult juggling act of playing three of the boys’ mothers (“all but T.J. cause his mother was dead, and that would be just weird,” Mark tells us). She handles the roles well overall, though Kinsella did stumble a couple of times when she misidentified her “son” of the moment. Benny’s mother stands out because she is a very different kind of woman from Mark’s and Andrew’s mothers who seem interchangeable; Benny’s mom is a Southern-fried hoot in her leopard print tight pants, big hair and big heels. When she visits the preacher (P. Michael Murphy) for counseling about her sissy son, she discombobulates even that estimable bully. And make no mistake, he is a bully, waving his Bible and insisting God speaks through him. Ultimately, the Bible becomes the jawbone, and the preacher the ass.
Del Shores has written a memory play for Mark (James Slover) who we meet as an adult, and a very angry one. He is a columnist for a gay newspaper (the only job he can get, he relates bitterly). He looks back to a summer when he and T.J. (Drew Pannebecker), Andrew (Tyler Whiteman) and Benny (Justin Ivan Brown) were 12 years old. In choosing this technique, Shores runs into some trouble. These are Mark’s memories, but we get inside the other boy’s minds, as well. Mark “remembers” things he didn’t see and couldn’t know. Generally, that’s acceptable except in one particularly confusing situation where Andrew visits a gay bar. Iona is singing there (her specialty is country music divas, and on this particular night, she’s Dolly Parton) and he goes off with the stripper. Iona is an adult, but Andrew is still a teenager, and I’m not sure what she’s upset about—the presence of the closeted Andrew? Chronologically, that’s not possible.
Another pair joins the scene, Cindy Dugan as Odette Annette Barnet (“my mama wanted twins but when I came out by myself she gave me both names”) and Michael Shreves as Preston “Peanut” Leroy, a sad old queen who can only get sex by paying for it. They bond, and of course, she has a secret, but she holds out on telling it until nearly the very end. By then, it’s not too hard to figure out that she has an agenda, but the two of them provide some amusing banter aided by Seth Ward Pyatt as both church musician Houston Chaffey, and the pianist/bartender in the gay bar. He wears a suit coat for one and changes to a gold vest for the other, setting glassware and a bottle on top of the spinet. It’s a clever bit, and he provides some unity in the somewhat disjointed plot line.
When church is in session, the boys and Mother sit on benches in relative order of gayness: T.J. who, despite a summer of sexual experimentation with Mark, is in complete denial about his attraction to men. Mark, who reluctantly (at first) accepts that this is who he is comes next; then Andrew who is so gay he jerks off to the men’s underwear sections of the Sears catalog, but so far in the closet that disaster awaits him; and finally, Benny who knows what he is and always has. He says he’s “happy,” but of course, there are intimations, the scene where Iona breaks down being one of them, that he is not.
Shores seems to me to do the community something of a disservice here. For example, Mark calls T.J. out on not admitting he’s gay and that he’s just pretending with his girlfriend, then wife. Maybe he’s not. Being bisexual isn’t going to get you into the heavenly host either, but such people do exist; however, he’s right in calling T.J. out on refusing to acknowledge his attraction to men at all. Mark seems guilty of stereotyping, and he does the same thing with Benny whom he accuses of “hiding” behind women’s clothing and wigs. For a gay man, he doesn’t seem to grasp the “B” or the “T” in “LGBT.”
Speaking of clothing and wigs, Alexandra Quigley deserves a special shout-out here for her stellar work in dressing the actors to represent different ages and stages. The costumes are both illuminating and, much of the time, amusing. Brava! Pyatt’s sound design makes good use of traditional hymns, the numbers for Iona, and incidental music he plays on piano. He is also credited as musical supervisor and assistant director.
Hymns are sung, Bibles are thumped, and fire and brimstone are called down. The usual arguments involving the “word of God” through Leviticus is debated, with Mark concluding that eating shrimp and sucking cock are pretty much equally abhorrent to the Father. The irony here (well, one of them anyway) is that parents want their children raised in this belief system—in fear of God, real fear, not awe; but loving Jesus anyway. Mark confesses to actually being IN love with Jesus (and Elvis, before he was fat—the two “kings”). The boys are taught to deny themselves and hate others (even good Jews go to hell) and to be baptized, as one mother puts it, so “we won’t be parted if we both died in a car accident.” And the kid, who happens here to be Mark, actually does it. He and T.J. are reborn in the lord and immersed on the same Sunday, after which they go back to Mark’s house for a celebratory mutual masturbation. But when Mark tries to kiss T.J., the latter runs away and never comes back. Mark is apparently permanently scarred by this rejection.
The end teaches a moral lesson through Mark, but by this time, we have been preached at for too long. Much of Southern Baptist Sissies is funny and entertaining, and some of it is even profound, but the play itself is bloated and repetitive. This group is loaded with talent, Pannebecker and Brown stand out among the four friends, but this isn’t intended to take anything away from the effective Slover and Whiteman. The supporting cast is fine, and to be fair, I saw a preview, so there were a few hesitations and stammers here and there. That’s to be expected, and I’m confident that all will be at the top of their games with another show or two under their belts. But the script is going to remain the same, and this hard-working crew simply deserves a better-written piece. Still, the message of love and tolerance does come through, and I enjoyed myself overall. If you go, I think you will too.
Note: Mature audiences only and the part of the preacher will be assumed by Joshua Thomas after Mar. 19.
Southern Baptist Sissies will be at Citilites space in the Gaslight Theatre through Mar. 27. You may call 314-773-1879 or visit www.citilitestheatre.com. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT