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Review: Sorting out these 'Sordid Lives'

L to R: LuAnn Buckstein, Shahara Ostrand
L to R: LuAnn Buckstein, Shahara Ostrand
Brian Miller

Sordid Lives


Everyone has a crazy family. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is, and it doesn’t matter where you come from – it’s the universal rule of families. When funerals, weddings, births, graduations and Bar Mitzvahs bring them all together – it’s best to sit back and just try to have a sense of humor. It is that same universality that makes a show like “Sordid Lives” so appealing. Playwright Del Shores created a world so thickly entrenched in southern culture, that it could have easily alienated the rest of the country. Instead, however, Shores masterfully crafted a script that is universally funny and broadly appealing. You can catch “Sordid Lives” on stage right now, thanks to a new theatre company in Denver, Illumination Theatre Productions.

“Sordid Lives” is the story of a big and broad southern family that comes together after the passing of the family matriarch, who died during a clandestine affair with a married man. The show opens as we meet Sissy, her sister, who is trying to cope with her sister passing away while also having quite smoking just three days earlier. The audience is then introduced to a host of colorful characters including the married man’s distraught wife Noleta, Sissy’s free-spirited daughter LaVonda and her brother, “Brother Boy,” who has been institutionalized for 23 years for being a cross-dressing homosexual.

What makes this big comedy work so well is the delicate narration and tender monologues that act as an introduction to each scene. The monologues come from the character of Ty, the grandson of the deceased. He is a closeted gay man that left home to become an actor, and he struggles with the decision to return to his home and his Southern Baptist family for his grandmother’s funeral. His decision is a complicated one, knowing how his family treated his cousin “Brother Boy” having had him institutionalized.

Under the very gentle direction of Bernie Cardell, the entire cast shines. Most of the performances are good and a few are astounding. Todd Black takes on the role of Sissy, and though it is not a role normally played in a gender-blind casting situation, he takes the role and runs with it. Funny and relatable, Black is the perfect host for this zany family reunion. Shahara Ostrand and Emma Messenger are also both quite impressive as LaVonda and Noleta. The two are hysterically funny with a lot of warmth and compassion, finding moments to keep the humor alive without losing any of the heart.

Other standouts include Patrick Brownson as Wardell, Boni McIntyre as Dr. Eve, and Kevin Leonard as Brother Boy. All of them take lots of risks, laying it all out on the stage. The result from each of them is sweet, funny, courageous and entertaining. It is also important to note two very different, yet extremely impressive performance – that of LuAnn Buckstein as Latrelle and Dale Haltom as Juanita. Buckstein’s Latrelle is understated and beautiful, with her final moments on stage easily pulling tears. While Haltom takes the small role of the town drunk to epic new heights, making hilarious choices that never fully distract from the rest of the cast, yet still allow the audience plenty of big laughs.

Truly, this is an ensemble cast that has created a rich and vibrant world for each character to inhabit. Cardell’s direction is strong and moving, as he’s paid a lot of attention to never losing the tender moments, allowing the warmth and the heart of Shores’ script to shine through. Technically, everything works well too. The set design (un-credited) worked sufficiently for the intimate space, though it did feel a bit large for the technical capabilities, especially during the loud scene changes. Costume design, (also un-credited,) is particularly strong, with vibrant colors and smart choices that easily transport the audience to the world of “Sordid Lives.”

Quite simply, the Illumination Theatre Productions presentation of “Sordid Lives” is a highly entertaining and extremely funny night of theatre. If this is any indication of what to expect from future productions, then this is a very exciting launch for this new theatre company in Denver.

Illumination Theatre Productions Present:
Del Shore’s “Sordid Lives”

Playing through August 17
at the John Hand Theatre
7653 E 1st Place
Tickets are $20
Click Here for tickets and information

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