A colorful Texan family faces a reunion of sorts after the accidental death of their matriarch. Guilty of having an affair, the matriarch trips on her lovers’ wooden legs, hits her head on a sink and dies. Full of outrageous moments and extraordinary people, the play “Sordid Lives” represents a larger picture: learning to accept those who seem different. Director Ed Wagenseller, who also teaches theatre at UNCW, has never been a fan of the ordinary or expected.
“I’m drawn to the misfits and the people who are still trying to find their place in this world,” he says. “There is something about that human condition, and in a weird way that is what this play has on a couple of levels.”
Originally written by Del Shores, “Sordid Lives” appears in numerous media: as a play, a movie, and even a sitcom. What remains a Southern comedy, and in much of its “white trash” glory, still, it tackles heavy content, such as sexuality, infidelity, love lost, and of course the ups and downs of dealing with family.
In 1996, the play premiered in Los Angeles, and in 2000, Shores produced and directed it into a movie featuring Olivia Newton-John. With a total of 14 wins at the Drama League Awards, including Best Production, “Sordid Lives” has caught the attention from a variety of audiences. The film version quickly solidified itself a “cult classic” among the LGBT community, as a major plot point features a transvestite.
“There is nothing you can do in the theatre to shock me,” Wagenseller says. “I don’t believe in shock. I want [the audience] to take away acceptance, but I also just want them to leave having a good time.”
Without seeing “Sordid Lives,” Wagenseller is coming at this play with no prior influences as director. He hasn’t seen the movie, the TV show or the stage version. “I have nothing to compare it to,” he admits, “which means I could really screw it up or come out with a really original attempt. I don’t have any preconceived notions of what this needs to be. I can approach it from a sense of originality.”
A director for the past 20 years, Wagenseller auditioned 70 people over a two-day period and filled 10 spots. The cast has been rehearsing four nights a week, for a mere three weeks, in order to prepare for opening night. “I like the pressure,” he says of the quick pace. “I like teaching actors that you don’t necessarily need six to eight weeks to put a show up. You can do it in four. You just have to be willing to work your ass off.”
Del Shores’ writing background shines a light on colorful individuals in “Sordid Lives.” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Richard Smith) deals with parents who have institutionalized him for 23 years due to his cross-dressing ways. Wardell “Bubba” Owens (Nicholas D. Kempton) catches Earl’s attention and affection for a bit of a love story. Protagonist Bitsy Mae Harling (Leslie Williams) is a local singer, who just got released from prison, and happens to be thrown into the mix from her connection with the now-deceased Peggy Ingram. The characters seem nothing short of dysfunctional. Even though they have a lot on their deep-fried plates, they still find time to be in each other’s business.
“In a nutshell the play is a reflection of our society and the people who are considered normal,” Wagenseller says. “The people who are seen as crazy are the ones who are most comfortable and normal with themselves. The play hits on that by using comedy. . .What matters is how someone treats another person and how you treat someone sitting across from you.”
As week three of rehearsals dwindle, major elements of the play are coming together. This includes technical aspects of the show, which are handled by the students, as teachers mentor and supervise.
“Essentially [UNCW] students are the ones who make the wheel move,” Wagenseller explains. “We hold them to the highest of standards because the important thing to remember is we are a training program, and it is important to train people to not settle for anything but their best.”
Likewise, the theatre department introduces students to professionals in the field. Local lighting designer Scott Davis (“Homeland”) acts as a guest artist on the production. Students work alongside him as a valuable resource. In fact, guest artists will help with every play this fall and next spring. “We seem to have chosen plays where we can cast primarily from the students we have here in the department,” Wagenseller says, “but there will always be one outside professional working on every show.”
They’ve also had their hands in the costuming. Overseen by designer Max Lydy, they’ve worked carefully.
“Creating a costume for a 6’3 transvestite hasn’t been easy,” Wagenseller jokes. “Seriously, I want them to have fun because in my opinion, if you’re having fun then you’re creating things.”
As a bonus to the students and director, Del Shores will be attending the October 5th showing of “Sordid Lives.” Tickets for this show only run $25 for the general public and $15 for students. It includes the show, as well as a Del Shores meet-in-greet, question-and-answer session and a wine-and-cheese reception. Otherwise, tickets are $10 to $12, with opening night on September 26th at UNCW’s Cultural Art Building. The wacky, eccentric and endearing story runs weekends through October 6th, falling shy of two hours in length.
UNCW Theatre Department
601 S. College Rd.
Sept. 26-29 and Oct. 3-6
8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.
Tickets are $12 GA; $10 UNCW employees and seniors; $5 students with ID and children. • 910-962-2793