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By John Quinn
“Sissie” rings harshly in the ear of any gay man. It’s a slur meant to mock and hurt. Yet in the title of the play “Southern Baptist Sissies,” it’s an attention-getter as effective as a punch in the face – which often follows use of said epithet. Who Wants Cake? revives its 2007 hit this month at the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale. The production, directed by Joe Bailey, unites members of the first cast with a few newer faces. The story they tell explores one of the classic themes of literature -the coming of age – from a distinctly LGBT perspective.
Playwright Del Shores is the son of a preacher man, and the play is quite personal. It follows four gay Dallas kids’ growth from childhood into manhood, aware that they’re misfits in the culture – especially their fundamentalist church. Each follows a different path seeking his true self.
Our storyteller, Mark (Matthew Turner Shelton), cannot deal with the hypocrisy of a church founded on love that preaches such hate, and leaves the church in anger. In the clash of religion and sexuality, the thoroughly indoctrinated T.J. (Michael Lopotrone), steps into the closet and slams the door. The flamboyant Benny (Vince Kelly), embraces his sexuality and becomes a “female illusionist.” The rather shy Andrew (Joe Plambeck) is still in emotional turmoil well into adulthood.
Structurally the script is problematic, as it drifts into flashbacks, as well as switching scenes between a Dallas church and a gay bar. The bar, though, allows for the introduction of two lost souls: “Peanut,” aging gay guy in a scene of the forever-young; and Odette Annette Barnett – hetero, but gay barfly. Together they have most of the comedy in this dramatic comedy. Jamie Richards and Melissa Beckwith reprise their roles from the first production and are fine comic relief. Yet as the characters swap jokes and stories, they reveal the emptiness of people who live lifestyles instead of lives.
But let’s return to that script. I don’t find it as compelling as other examples of the genre, due to Shores’ rather superficial handling of his characters’ inner states. If any of this is autobiographical, why isn’t he more in touch with the complexities? Nor am I sure the convention of one actress playing all of the boys’ mothers (here admirably performed by returning Connie Cowper) isn’t a suggestion that “they’re all alike.” And while Barry Cutler’s bigoted Preacher scares the bejeezus out of me, the character, as written, is so obtuse one wonders if Shore has Daddy issues. The Ringwald production is a clear case of performance transcending material.
The cast is a uniformly polished ensemble and is finding the souls the playwright neglected to give his characters. Bailey’s direction makes the narrative flow like a dream as he weaves his cast around the pitfalls in the script. It’s no problem seeing why “Southern Baptist Sissies” was a hit in the company’s first season; it’s no less a hit now.
‘ Southern Baptist Sissies’
Who Wants Cake? at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through Sept. 26. Contains nudity and adult situations. $10-$20. 248-545-5545. http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com