It’s a tradition in Southern literature to start with a death in the family.
In Del Shores’ “Sordid Lives,” now playing at Theatre Knoxville Downtown, the dead woman, Peggy Ingram, was a philandering mother who was having an affair with a crippled Vietnam veteran, G. W. Nethercott, depressingly played by David Cain. As her bickering daughters reveal in Act I, when she got out of their motel room bed to go to the bathroom, she tripped over his artificial legs he had left on the floor, hit her head on the sink and bled to death.
Certainly, dead people are timeless characters. But a character like G. W. who is identified with a historical event, a Vietnam vet in his 40s in Shores’ 1996 script’s character description, seems 25 years too young for the part if the play is brought into the current moment on daily display in similar whacky, racist and backward behavior seen every day on social media.
There’s not much in “Sordid Lives” that does go right. Much of it due to the Nethercott and Williamson families off-kilter, often hilarious, behavior. But a bigger stain on the Ingram family is their treatment of two members they deem unfit, at least in the confines of their small-town Texas mentality, because they are gay.
For making a pass 25 years ago at bar owner Wardell “Bubba” Owens, convincingly played by Dennis Hart, Peggy committed her son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, played with delight and charm by Scott Cureton, to a mental hospital where he has been subjected to the unorthodox (to say the least) methods of Dr. Eve Bolinger, who Leslie Fox tries hard to play as an ogre.
Ty Williamson, played by David Steele, who is only seen in monologs before each act and in the final funeral scene, is Peggy’s gay grandson who left home to make his way as an actor.
The three adult (at least age-wise) married Ingram daughters: Noleta Nethercott (Kara van Veghel), who is married to the wandering G. W.; Latrelle Williamson (Julianna Sanderson) and La Vonda Dupree (Sarah Campbell) do their best to prove that Winters is populated with dim wits and halfwits.
The exception, for the most part, is Sissy Hickey (Emmy Eddy), Peggy’s sister, who has the misfortune of choosing this time to stop smoking, making her a nervous wreck.
In a funny scene, La Vonda and Noleta stage a Thelma and Louise type hold-up routine at Bubba’s, the local bar where they knew G. W. hung out. They force G. W., Bubba and his brother, Odell Owens, played with comic dullness by Steve Louis, to strip to their skivvies and put on wigs and make-up.
But it’s Peggy’s funeral that brings the families together. Bubba rescues Brother Boy from the loonie bin and away from his sex-crazed therapist so he can attend the funeral. Ty comes too.
Add Bitsy Mae Harling (Kami Lunsford), a country singer who serenades the audience before each act and provides music for the funeral and getting the entire cast on Theatre Knoxville’s tiny stage certainly challenged director Keri McClain.
Part of what makes “Sordid Lives” so funny is Shore’s feel for characters that come off as real people. But, in this production, credit also goes to McClain and the cast.
At least this audience member hopes that Theatre Knoxville meets its fundraising goal and soon moves to its proposed new theater with room to breathe and space where this collection of thespians can bring plays this good to life.
Performances of “Sordid Lives” runs through June 17, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 at their current cramped theater at 319 N. Gay St. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at www.theatreknoxville.com.