Emily Miller and Mandi Elkins Hutchins in “Sordid Lives” | Courtesy of Pandora Productions

Pandora Productions’ season opener, Del Shores’ “Sordid Lives,” is another entry into the theatrical treatment of the LGBTQ experience that focuses on family. This one features not one but two LGBTQ members in a conservative Southern family — a family also struggling to discover if it’s plain old Southern, or that special sort of sordid some call “white trash.”

The play features loud women, loose talk, good ol’ boys, smoking, drinking and a little gun play.

Family dramedy as a genre is one of the mainstays of modern theater, but it has a special place in the LGBTQ world, as separation from family, or the possible acceptance, is a facet of life those folks must navigate. Conversely there are plays that focus on found family after a rejection from the nuclear one.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to lump “Sordid Lives” in with those other plays. While much of its action is driven by two gay characters, or possibly one gay character and one trans character — this play isn’t much into definitions, and its terminology is a little outdated — there is another important inciting incident that gets the ball rolling with a full cast of well-fleshed-out characters.

The action is kicked off by the death of Peggy Sue Ingram (Emily Miller), the matriarch of a Southern family. The rest of the characters in the play are either Peggy’s family members or those tied to the family by love or friendship.

There are Peggy’s two daughters, LaVonda (Glenna Godsey) and Latrelle (Susan McNeese Lynch), who fight and bicker; Peggy’s grandson Ty (Jake Minton), who fled to the big city long ago and must contemplate coming home for his grandmother’s funeral; Peggy’s brother, Brother Boy (Shane Whitehead), who has been long absent after the events of a distant evening no one wants to talk about; and Peggy’s sister, Sissy (Rena Cherry Brown), who acts as the play’s voice of reason amid all the other extreme personalities.

Susan McNeese Lynch, Jessica Tanselle, Jessica Sharpenstein, Jake Minton and Shane Whitehead | Courtesy of Pandora Productions

And then there is the peculiar manner of Peggy’s death …

LaVonda and Latrelle embody the central conflicts of the play, and the themes their relationship play out reappear throughout the rest of the action, both metaphorically and explicitly.

Do we accept and even revel in our peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, or do we lock them away and try to control them?

LaVonda is loud and boisterous, and as embodied by Godsey, she is a fun and flirty presence, with a low-cut blouse, a hand cannon, a mouthful of cigarettes and a manner that is calculated to purposefully piss off her straitlaced sister.

As the rowdy one, she’s immediately endearing, or maybe that’s just my checkered past influencing which sister I like best.

Latrelle, her opposite in temperament, is played with the right off-putting prickliness by Lynch. She keeps her feelings wrapped up tight, whether they are about her uncle Brother Boy or her son Ty, and the discomfort and homophobia that both arouse in her. He prickliness and secrecy throughout the play make her eventual outpouring of emotion satisfying, and Lynch brings it off well.

The dichotomy of the two sisters is balanced by Brown’s Sissy. She smokes, but she’s trying to stop. She’s got regrets, but she’s more open to talking about them.

While Sissy is technically the aunt here, she is a much younger sister to the departed matriarch and admits Peggy was more of a mother figure to her. It’s a nice complication in the power dynamics of the sisters.

The play consists of just four scenes, but those scenes have not one but two framing devices.

Mandi Elkins Hutchins is a country singer who appears between scenes and sings songs directly to the audience, as if we are at a concert. Hutchins’ voice and personality are perfect here, and at times she threatens to outshine the onstage antics with the quality of her performance.

Her guitar playing isn’t nearly as good as her singing, but director Jason Cooper wisely chooses to let Hutchins strum the chords and nail the vocals rather than introducing loud and jarring canned music.

The other frame is a series of monologues, in the form of one-sided therapy sessions, where Ty explains his homosexuality’s effect on his relationship with his family and hometown, as well as sharing timely revelations about his uncle, Brother Boy.

Minton’s Ty is fine, but even though the monologues allow him a direct connection to the audience, as written he’s the most standard and least interesting character in the show.

Whitehead’s stage time as Brother Boy is mostly confined to one therapy session, but it’s the most memorable and outright hilarious part of the evening, owing in equal parts to Whitehead’s sardonic delivery and Kelsey Thompson’s turn as the crazed and oversexed therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger. Having the doctor and the patient take turns being the wild one is a nice twist on the old “drag queen acting zany” situation we so often see in LGBTQ plays.

Eric Sharp and Mandi Elkins Hutchins | Courtesy of Pandora Productions

It also speaks to Cooper’s ability to modulate the comedy in a scene. He knows when to ease up and when to hit the gas. He shows a similar ability in the dramatic scenes, despite the loud characters and white trashiness of it all, though he seems a little more at home with the comedy than the drama.

Pandora would be wise to utilize his talent again.

Solid acting and direction make this a worthy entry into Pandora’s body of work, but all that being said, despite the solid production and the many things this script does right, it’s just not my kind of play.

The period of ’80s drama and comedies that include works like “Steel Magnolias” and “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” were all the rage when I was growing up, and “Sordid Lives” belongs strongly in that body of work.

I enjoyed those plays when they were popular the first time, but I’m not quite ready to see their renaissance. I suspect I’m not the only one, but I know many still love them, including the large audience opening night.

So if Dixie-fried family drama with outrageous LGBTQ complications is your cup of sweet tea, I’d say “Sordid Lives” is a safe bet for an evening out.

“Sordid Lives” is back on stage this week starting Thursday, Sept. 21, though tickets for Friday and Saturday night are running low, according to Pandora. Tickets are $20 in advance or $22 at the door. It continues through Sept. 24. All shows are performed at The Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.