Educating Excellence

Oct 1 • ARTSY SMARTSY, TheaterNo Comments on Educating Excellence

(above) DRESS TO IMPRESS: Leslie Williams as Bitsy Mae Harling and Richard Smith as Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram. Courtesy of UNCW Theatre Dept.
UNCW Theatre Department’s first production of the 2013-14 year is Del Shore’s “Sordid Lives.” The show follows up-and-coming actor Ty Williamson (Luke Robbins), who is in therapy and trying to work up the courage to go home to his grandmother’s funeral back in his tiny Texas hometown. His grandmother’s embarrassing death from tripping over the two wooden legs of G.W. Nethercott (Gary T. Moore), the double amputee that she was having an affair with, has opened up a can of worms for the family and the people who surround them. Perhaps no one is suffering quite as much as Ty’s mother, Latrelle (Ashley Burton), who is so proper and uptight this last bit of revelation might just kill her. It’s bad enough having a gay son, a sister who’s less than Godly and a transvestite brother, but this is just more than she can take.

Grief does strange things to people, and Noleta Nethercott (Kate Wesolowski), the wronged wife of G.W., and her best friend, LaVonda (Helen Ross), go on a crime spree, to, among other things, get revenge not just for G.W.’s infidelity, but also for “Brother Boy” (Richard Smith). LaVonda and Latrelle’s cross-dressing brother has been locked in an institution for the last 20 years as a result of a gay-bashing incident. The ladies crash in on the local bar, run by Wardell Owens (Nicholas D. Kepmton), inhabited by local barflies, including Wardell’s brother, Odell (Phillip Antonino) and, of course, the object of Noleta’s wrath: her estranged husband G.W. Because this is Texas, problems are solved with guns, but because this is a dark comedy, humor carries more weight than dead bodies.

Director Ed Wagenseller has a real eye for casting, especially when working with an ever-shifting population like a university. He did a great job of getting sets of siblings that favored each other: Wardell and Odell; LaVonda and Latrelle. Yet, they also bicker like siblings. Wardell and Odell are my favorite; they really have the whole “smarter older brother saddled with a dimwit who loves him” shtick down pat. I previously have seen Antonino in fairly heavy dramatic roles. Surprise set in by his comedic ability, both as Odell and later as the least charismatic preacher in Texas. Just as it is fun to watch him cut loose as Odell, it is equally fun seeing the exact opposite during the funeral scene. If anything, his range is a joy to behold.

Last year Wesolowski and Moore heated up the UNCW stage with their portrayal of another couple with marital strife: Titania and Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In this production they have more license to interact together. Their painful discord, with all its repercussions, echo. Moore, in particular, plays a double amputee quite surprisingly. It’s a difficult role to take on, but instead of sinking into anger for anger’s sake, he seeks out frustration and justification as motivation. It really works.

Part of what makes UNCW’s shows so appealing comes from their phenomenal production values. Visually the shows always look stunning, from sets to costumes and lighting. Max Lydy’s set communicates volumes. The seediness of the dive-bar could not be overstated; the clean simple lines of the church and the ghastly wallpaper pair with the dreadful drapes of the family home pitch perfectly.

UNCW’s Theatre Department has been actively bringing in professional guest artists to work with their students. This show features Scott Davis as guest lighting designer. The ever-building warm glow permeating the show belies the underlying love these frustrated and tortured people really have for each other. Each guest artist that has worked with UNCW has brought yet another new and interesting perspective to the creative process. Moreover, they bring years of experience to share with the students. What does a professional life look like? Few people are more generous and open with their wisdom than Scott Davis. Though he has great skill, probably one of the best lessons he could share would be the sunny attitude he inhabits; it’s the secret to making people want to work with you again and again.

The mission of UNCW theatre is to educate, and truly this is an excellent selection to meet that criteria. The script speaks to issues that dominate the mind in the early part of adulthood: “Now that I have figured out who I am, will they still love me?” Also, it looks at the peculiar reality that once we leave home, life behind us actually continues. That is almost as painful a realization as the acceptance that our parents are not perfect.

Director Wagenseller has a gentleness about his work with family; he approaches it almost with reverence, a recognition that these bonds are strong. The items they mine, namely us, are more fragile than we admit.  Under his guidance, the show really achieves what university theatre sets out to do: push the limits of the students and bring together talented professional artists to address themes that are pertinent to our growth as people.

Playwright Del Shores will be in town October 5th to watch the play, as well as do a Q&A and meet-and-greet during a wine reception afterward; tickets are $25 for this VIP event. The opportunity to work with and learn from someone who has achieved very real success in an extremely competitive industry is a rare gift for students at this stage of development.  Hats off to UNCW for pulling “Sordid Lives” together.

Sordid Lives
UNCW • 601 S. College Rd.
Oct. 3-6, 8 p.m.;
Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $12 GA; $10 UNCW employees and seniors; $5 students with ID and children.

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