In Del Shores’ frank and frightening “Southern Baptist Sissies,” four boys in Dallas look to the church as they struggle with their sexual orientation. But hellfire and damnation are the only choices offered if they don’t reject their feelings.
Theatre in the Park’s production doesn’t shy away from the script’s crude language, bawdy jokes and explicit sex scenes, nor does it soften the condemnation of some Christian viewpoints. Strong leads and the play’s themes help counter some faltering staging.
The four friends’ story is narrated by Mark, a wisecracking questioner of what God’s love really is. Andrew wants to eliminate his inclinations through rigorous prayer but can’t stop looking at men’s underwear ads. Benny decides he can’t stay in the church and is soon doing drag at the local gay bar. T.J. acknowledges his desires but can’t reconcile them with his view of masculinity, ending his attachment to Mark for Bible-thumping and marriage.
These grim circumstances alternate with raucous bar scenes between Peanut, an older gay man, and Odette, drinking to forget a dark secret. They supply comic relief but also commentary on the quest for love and acceptance.
Brent Blakesley gives Mark wicked sarcasm and spunky rebellion while projecting his hope for better times. Thomas Porter’s gentle Andrew is moving in his morbid fear of discovery. Edward Freeman easily portrays Benny’s flighty personality, and gamely, if not comfortably, performs his drag numbers. Benoit Sabourin’s T.J. is heartbreaking in his denial of happiness, and is boldly sensual in the double role of male stripper.
Chris Milner and Martie Todd Sirois have a grand time with Peanut and Odette’s jibes and barbs. Bob Harris’ preacher seems less fervent and driven than the script suggests, while Diane Petteway’s multiple mothers could use more variety. Brent Simpson quietly doubles as church and bar pianists.
The 2 1/2-hour production drags because Shores tends to overwrite his points and his bar scenes practically make another play. Director David Henderson elicits some fine humor and drama along the way, but his pacing is generally deadly and the blocking often awkward. Thomas Mauney’s serviceable set is ill-served by his spotty lighting.
Production flaws don’t diminish the message. Those attending should come away determined to make a better world.
If you go
What: “Southern Baptist Sissies”
Where: Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Road, Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23-24; 3 p.m. Sept. 25
Tickets: $24 (seniors, students, military $18)
Info: 919-831-6058 or theatreinthepark.com