As Southern Baptist Sissies begins, a preacher is delivering a sermon while a young man comments on it: "What a crock of shit," Mark exclaims. Having silenced the preacher, who exists only in his memory, he tells the story of four choir members — himself included — who grew up gay in a fire-and-brimstone religious community: Benny, who never took religion seriously and became a flamboyant drag queen; Andrew, desperately fighting his own urges as he continued to seek compassion and acceptance within the church; T.J., with whom Mark had his first sexual encounter, but who recoiled from gay love to marry a woman and attend Baylor University, a Christian school; and Mark himself, bitter and estranged, and clearly a stand-in for author Del Shores. The structure of his play is pretty straightforward: You follow the four as they mature from boys to young men, suffering every step of the way. The action is broken up by comic scenes set in a piano bar featuring an aging gay man called Peanut and a cocktail waitress named Odette; a stripper periodically erupts into these sessions, or sometimes Benny, performing one of his drag acts.
Southern Baptist Sissies is a production of Theatre Out Denver, staged as a benefit for Denver ELEMENT, an organization that supports gay and bisexual men. Under the direction of Steven Tangedal, the tech is low-key and unpretentious and the acting uneven, though there's strength in the portrayals of James O'Hagan-Murphy as Mark and Preston Lee Britton as Benny. Stefin Woolever projects an innocent charm as Andrew. But the performances of the duo in the bar are so broad that they distract.
The primary problem, though, is the script, which is didactic and far too long. Sissies was written a decade ago, and even then it must have sounded dated. You can feel the ghost of Tennessee Williams hovering as the protagonists voice their anguish and sense of persecution — but alas, you don't get Williams's language. (In the 1940s and '50s, when he wrote his great plays, Williams couldn't even identify the love that dares not speak its name.) There's no subtlety to Shores's script, nothing ingenious or surprising. Every point gets hammered home, and then hammered home again. You know from the start that someone is going to kill himself, and you also know just who it will be. The characters have neither nuance nor dimension. The preacher is so smug and hide-bound that he doesn't feel the need for even a second's self-examination after his own advice triggers a suicide. Did T.J. enjoy one minute of his time with Mark? If he did, it's not in the script. Has Mark ever attempted to understand T.J.'s fears (never mind those of his off-stage wife — who's obviously just a symbol, or she wouldn't have big hair)? Of course not. Every one is self-absorbed, and everyone's unhappy — even Benny, who thinks he's not. And by about the fourth bitter, tear-drenched monologue, I was feeling pretty unhappy myself.
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Southern Baptist Sissies
Presented by Theatre Out Denver through March 24, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 720-382-5900, www.thedenverelement.com.
Growing up gay is hell in many parts of the United States — and the fact that we have a presidential candidate who compares homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy and incest makes it clear just how much discrimination gay people still face. On the morning I wrote this review, there was an article in the New York Times describing the trial of a college student who had recorded and shown his gay roommate's first sexual encounter — an act that probably caused that young man's suicide.
But the ponderous self-righteousness of Southern Baptist Sissies, the complete lack of any shred of irony or self-awareness — not to mention a single moment of sensuality or joy — doesn't help. Why couldn't just one of the four boys have grown up to have a happy life, despite the church's ugly narrow-mindedness: a loving, stable relationship, perhaps even a child? Why does Shores seem to insist that the only possible outcome for a gay kid is a life spent gossiping in bars and paying young men for sex, like poor old Peanut?