Death is usually good for a laugh or two in a Del Shores comedy. Certainly it is for Queen City Theatre Company, who opened their doors with a production of Shores' Sordid Lives in 2007 and brought it back to Duke Energy Theatre last season. Daddy's Dyin' ... Who's Got the Will, an older Shores paean to Southern-fried altruism, has also surfaced a couple of times in the Metrolina area since its LA debut in 1987.
In Southern Baptist Sissies, Shores renews his love-hate relationship with white Texas trash, this time transferring his deepest disdain from the homophobic family matriarch he ridiculed in Sordid Lives to a homophobic Baptist preacher who thunders hellfire hatred from the pulpit. Beau Stroupe roars the Preacher's sermons and sings the Baptist hymns with equal gusto, and Polly Adkins — with the aid of a fine array of Jeff Capell wigs — portrays all the mothers who fall under his influence.
This time around, the actions of a misguided mother have fatal consequences late in the story, and for once, Shores isn't laughing.
Not to worry, there are plenty of the comedic and satirical jolts we expect from Shores and Queen City Theatre along the way. At the center of the story are the four title characters who stray from the fold — or at least entertain the idea. T.J. Brooks is the least likely of the four boys to renounce the church, fighting himself as he quotes chapter and verse from Scripture. On the other hand, Benny's gayness flames so fiercely that we're not altogether surprised at his transformation into diva transvestite Iona Traylor. Andrew Thomas Ford is far more ambivalent about his sexuality, frequenting a drag gay nightclub and praying to God to cure his affliction.
Torn between guilt and defiance, Mark Lee Fuller is our semi-omniscient narrator. While he has the power to freeze the preacher in mid-rant and fire back his own arguments and invective, Mark cannot prevent the Baptist sermons from having their insidious effect on Andrew — and he can only deflect T.J. from his straight-and-narrow career path just once. Of course, that once is enough to define the misery of both their lives afterward.
Anyone who has seen Berry Newkirk in Rope, ThomThom, or Trainspotting over the past year will not be surprised by his riveting performance as Mark. Nor will anyone who saw Justin Younts as Newkirk's lover in Queen City's outstanding production of Rope be shocked by the smoldering chemistry between Andrew and T.J. here (Younts moonlights as a male stripper in the club scenes). But hell, even I was surprised by the reinvention of Steven Martin as Benny/Iona: The heartless drug trafficker in Reefer Madness and the swaggering Juan Peron in Queen City's Evita is now sashaying across Duke Energy Theatre in high heels, lip-synching Dolly Parton, and bringing the heat.
Although director Glenn T. Griffin might have considered Josh Bistromowitz for the beefcake role of T.J., he chose wisely in casting him as Andrew, where his choirboy credulity is so perfect. But the central problem in this comedy-drama that clocks in at 2:09 plus intermission is the tangential appendages Shores affixes to his script, aging homosexual Peanut Leroy and his barfly companion Odette Annette Barnett. Shores hardly bothers to connect the soused, oddball trysts between Peanut and Odette to the rest of the story, let alone demonstrate how Mark would know about Peanut's impact on the outcome.
With Hank West, QCTC's go-to grande dame, as Peanut and Amanda Liles as Odette, in a Capell wig that rivals Martin's, the desultory digressions pass quite agreeably. Pointed, poignant, and hilarious, Southern Baptist Sissies is far punchier than its title.