Dignity Players' twisted family comedy 'Sordid Lives' shines

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Dignity Players caps its 2011 season with Del Shores' 1996 comedy "Sordid Lives," about a dysfunctional Texas family that could compete in sleaze and shock with most reality TV show stars — and beat them all in laughs.

In his program statement, Dignity's artistic director, Mickey Lund, reminds us that the company's message of tolerance, love and acceptance is evident here, although "its delivery is much more light-hearted and fun than you may be accustomed to at Dignity Players."

The comic touch is deft, and the hilarity is a welcome departure from the company's usually more serious reflections on social issues. Here, a message of tolerance comes through loud and clear amid roars of laughter to conclude Dignity's ninth season.

In her first Dignity Players directing stint, multitalented actor, singer and director Debbie Barber-Eaton brings distinctive humor and honesty as her talented cast explores family dynamics, betrayal and redemption.

The play, which became an independent film in 2000, illustrates a small-town Texas family's struggle to arrange a funeral for Peggy Ingram, who died in a motel room after tripping over the detached wooden legs of her lover.

Her lover is G.W. Nethercott, who is married to Noleta, a close friend of Peggy's daughter LaVonda. Noleta is also a neighbor of Peggy's sister, Sissy Hickey. Other family members include LaVonda's uptight sister Latrelle and her gay actor son Ty, who worries about coming out. Peggy's son, Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram, is a gay transvestite who has been in a mental institution for over 20 years, entertaining fellow patients with his impersonation of country music legend Tammy Wynette.

Wardell Owens was once Earl's best friend until discovering the extent of Brother Boy's devotion, which results in Wardell's beating him and helping to commit him to the mental institution. Wardell's stupid brother Odell, who had bullied Earl, frequents the local bar. This bar had become the departed Peggy's favorite hangout with her devoted saloon buddy — singing, guitar-strumming Bitsey Mae Harling. Appearing with Brother Boy Earl in Act 2 is his ill-tempered, fame-seeking psychiatrist, Dr. Eve Bollinger, who may be in the wrong profession.

Dignity's "Sordid Lives" boasts an all-star cast starting with gifted comedian Carol Cohen, playing Peggy's sister Sissy, who has picked the wrong time to quit smoking — only one day before her sister's untimely death. She snaps her rubber wrist band whenever she needs a cigarette.

Sissy welcomes uninvited mourner and neighbor Noleta to her home, followed by nieces Latrelle and LaVonda. Cohen's Sissy consoles the guests with gentle country wisdom and patience before both wane and her urge to smoke grows. Cohen conveys Sissy's mounting frustration with a knowing glance that instantly evokes our laughter.

Darice Clewell plays Latrelle convincingly as she searches for excuses to explain her mother's bizarre behavior, an impatience with sister LaVonda's uninhibited behavior and denial of son Ty's suspected homosexuality, all motivated by her underlying love of family.

Karen Lambert expresses LaVonda's zest for life and pragmatic acceptance of reality, including the circumstances of her mother's demise. She celebrates Ty's sensitivity and skill as an actor. LaVonda rises to comic heights in her therapeutic encouragement of Noleta to even the score with her philandering husband in a "Thelma and Louise" bar raid scene with Noleta.

Peggy's grandson Ty is played with sensitivity by Jason Vellon in a series of monologues recounting sessions with a few of the 27 psychologists he has consulted over the past three years. Vellon conveys Ty's ambivalence about coming out along with his deep affection for his mother and aunt, and his reluctance to attend his grandmother's funeral.

Remaining family member "Brother Boy" Earl arrives after intermission in Act 2, when Paul Berry makes his Dignity Players acting debut. Brother Boy struggles in his 68th session of the institution's "dehomosexualization" program, where he arrives without his wig but in full Tammy Wynette makeup for his session with Dr. Bollinger. Berry brings strong acting and comedic skills that contribute to the mounting humor of subsequent scenes with friend Wardell.

Beyond family members, actor Jim Reiter is outstanding as Peggy's lover and Noleta's husband, G.W. Nethercott. Equally impressive is Casey Augusterier, who returns to Dignity's stage after a 25-year hiatus to deliver a hilarious Dr. Bollinger.

In fact, every ensemble player delivers a strong performance, including Ali Vellon as Bitsy Mae; Laura Gayvert as Noleta; Dan Kavanaugh as Odell; Timothy Sayles as Wardell; and Kathryn Huston as Juanita Bartlett.

"Sordid Lives" runs through Oct. 15 at Dignity Players, at the Unitarian Universalist Church off of Bestgate Road.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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