Everybody has their truth. Yours may be different from mine, but there’s only one way to the promised land…of theatre…and for the moment that way is through the gates of Spotlighters Theatre as they warm up the winter with their production of Southern Baptist Sissies. Written by Del Shores and Directed by Fuzz Roark, this evocative, heartbreaking tale of reconciling religious truth with reality tugs the heartstrings hard and doesn’t let go until the show’s stirring conclusion.
An impressive script, with a powerful message, and an exceptional series of performances throughout the production, the shows major issues are technical. Director Fuzz Roark balances two hats in both directing the performance and serving as the show’s Sound Designer. There are moments of transition where sound is entirely lacking between scenes and other moments where the subtle underscoring of organ music is balanced so softly that its almost skipped. This, juxtaposed against the overall volume issues that recur throughout the performance make some of the quieter moments more difficult to appreciate and absorb. Roark masterfully captures the intimate essence of several of these humbling moments in his guidance of the performers, but their film-grade delivery volume prevents the audience from fully capturing these intense segments of earnest pathos as they occur.
Roark’s pacing is somewhat inconsistent, with the sluggish moments occurring mainly during the scenes between Peanut and Odette. While the scenic changes themselves move with surprising ease and fluidity, there are a handful of other moments peppered throughout that contain awkwardly placed pauses between dialogue exchanges that don’t seem to take root in anything in particular. These issues aside, Roark delivers a stunning emotional production that delves deeply into the character constructs of the play and really showcases the nuances and layers of individuals that easily run the risk of being painted as a stereotype.
Accent and Dialect Coach Sherrionne Brown brings all the glory of the Lord with her refined approach to channeling various degrees of Texas into the performances experienced throughout the evening. The fiery belching brimstone sound of the preacher bristles brilliantly against the more precious and pleading sound of the “Mother” character, both taking deep root in The Lone Star State. Brown’s native ear lends a sense of authenticity to the characters, particularly the four young males, when it comes to exacting pronunciation, cadence, and patois.
While the majority of the show’s lighting is simplistic interior warmth, Lighting Designer Al Ramer does throw a little spice and flare into the mix when it comes to the gay nightclub scenes. Fully encompassing the vivacious aesthetic through his blinking colorful light show, Ramer makes a sharp contrast between these scenes and the heavenly austerity of the Baptist church, which is often lit in a harsh white, albeit tightly focused, beam of luminescence. Ramer’s understanding of how to light the theatre-in-the-square space helps draw focus to the costume design work, overseen by Roark and the cast. Most notable among the sartorial collection? Odette’s detestable trailer trash couture, it speaks volumes of her character and is worth a nod, as are the fiercely fabulous outfits seen on Miss Iona Traylor.
When a show’s message is as powerful as the one presented inside of Southern Baptist Sissies, the character work is crucial in order to properly eloquate the playwright’s intentions. Director Fuzz Roark and his exceptionally talented cast delivers stellar emotional portrayals, conceived in earnest and delivered in vulnerability to maximize the audience impact of Del Shore’s work. There are moments that twist the stomach, that tickle the funny bone, that shatter the heart; having all of these moments culminate into one fluid movement as a whole performance is a mark of Roark’s seasoned expertise as a director.
Taking on the multi-faceted role of “Mothers”, Christina Holmes finds subtle ways to delineate one boys mother from the next. Though the aesthetic is handled with differing dresses and wildly outrageous variations on wigs, Holmes does subtle little things like drop her posture, carry the weight of her shoulders differently and even shifts her voice— while maintaining that slow-drawn Texas twang— to keep these moments of mother feeling unique for each one she plays. Nearly all of her scenes are played opposite of the boisterous Preacher Reily (John Sadowsky.) With a burning belch of hellfire in his belly, Sadowsky intones the fiery brimstone of a Baptist preacher with an old-testament God speaking through him. One of the most revolting moments in the performance that truly delivers a gut-punch to the audience is delivered in his brusque and abrupt fashion, making him as vile a villain as there is to be had in the gospel’s version of the truth.
There is a great dose of comic levity to be had in the performance of Odette (Melainie Eifert) and Peanut (Greg Grenier.) While there is truth and gravity to their exchanges late in the production, their earlier interactions are the fluffy fun moments that keep the play from stalling in the emotional mire of its subject matter. Eifert has a masterful handle on her Texas drawl and her slow, slippery saunter as she sashays around the bar. There is something quaintly quirky about Grenier’s portrayal of the queer old queen Peanut that speaks as the quintessential fop character in a play that toes the line of stereotypes. His flamboyance floats just between authentic and overdone, creating a perfect balance of humor and humanity in his performance. Watch for his little facial ecstasies trying to catch the eyes of various fellas in the bar when Odette isn’t looking.
Dennis Binseel, whose erotic dancing abilities are to be commended in addition to his acting talent, presents the struggle of TJ with a vicious and angry edge. The guilt and confusion that overwhelms much of his character’s existence is represented constantly within Binseel’s delivery, not only verbally but in the rigid tension he retains in his physicality. There are blistering fissures in his character’s resolve, showcased in interactions opposite Mark, that put Binseel’s versatility to the test, which he passes with radiant and heavenly light.
The show’s most jarring emotional confession is delivered late in the show by Andrew (Dan Romeo.) While the character is given limited exposure there is a convivial joy in Romeo’s initial approach to Andrew’s life. This furthers the severity with which his harrowing and heartbreaking monologue is delivered. Fully emotionally invested and grounded in the utterly tear-provoking text of that moment, Romeo delivers a striking moment that grabs the audience and shakes them into sobs without question.
Serving as the show’s narrative force, Michael MacKay is a performance powerhouse throughout the production. Channeling several flavors of rage, anger, frustration, hate, and dejection with life, MacKay snaps the audience to attention every time he redirects the flow of attention from one moment to the next. His emotional outbursts are delivered with bone-chilling clarity and crash upon the stage like an emotional tsunami that’s been pent up behind a dam of religious upbringing for far too long. His moments of calming clarity are as gripping and as engaging as his roared moments of extreme pathos. MacKay finds absolute truth in the text but levels it with sarcasm and frustration so that his character comes with levity in addition to gravity.
Show-stopper and scene-stealer Tommy Malek takes the luck of the draw to the Benny character and wholeheartedly embodies the drag-persona Iona Traylor. With gams too glamorous for words, Malek struts across the stage in various drag routines unafraid to embrace the character’s happiness. This juxtaposition of owning joy versus masquerading behind the construct is a powerful character trope that Malek handles with grace and vulnerability, particularly when hearing the slander MacKay’s character lashes in his direction. Poised, polished, and pretty damn funny in addition to emotionally available, Malek is a delightful addition to the quartet of young fellas featured in the show.
Stunning, evocative, gripping; all of these things are the true hallmarks of theatre when it’s designed to touch the audience. Regardless of how Southern Baptist Sissies touches you, as it is designed to touch each member of the audience differently, it delivers on all levels of relevancy in this day and age where acceptance and truth are still at war with living peacefully among each other.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission
Southern Baptist Sissies plays through March 6, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.