Balancing Act

Every family struggles with its abnormalities

Your instructions are simple: Go to the HotHouse Theatre and see Lavonne Byers and Terry Meddows in Sordid Lives. The production of Del Shores' Texas comedy, a great capper to HotHouse's successful season, is marvelous for many reasons, but much of the credit belongs to these two fine actors who give flawless performances that shouldn't be missed.

Shores' play veers between hilarious over-the-top situations and moments of genuine emotion and drama. It would be very easy to produce this script without playing those moments and end up with a cartoon -- funny but empty. On the other hand, it would be easy to push the emotion too far, resulting in mawkish sentimentality. At the HotHouse, director Peter Reynolds skillfully avoids both extremes and excellently handles the abrupt shifts in tone, going from broad humor to heartfelt, underplayed emotional scenes in the blink of an eye. He's helped by his fine cast, especially Byers, who gets every laugh possible out of the material while staying rooted in a believable and irascible but totally understandable character.

Sordid Lives is, at heart, a family comedy. The family in question, the Williamsons, has tried hard over the years to repress its "abnormalities," but so has every family, and that's the point: All lives are sordid if you look deep enough. Ty (a solid Ken Ferrigni), a successful actor now living in New York, grew up trying to keep his homosexuality a secret, with good reason. His Grandma Peggy put his uncle, Earl "Brother Boy" (Meddows), into an insane asylum at age 18 for being a gay transvestite, claiming it was for his own protection. Now Peggy has died under scandalous and absurd circumstances, hitting her head on a sink in a cheap motel after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover, G.W. (John Vullo). The fact that G.W.'s wife, Noleta (Cindy Stricker), and Peggy's daughter La Vonda (Larissa Forsythe ) are best friends only complicates matters. As Peggy's other daughter, Latrelle (Byers), tries to keep the lid on this scandal and deal with her mother's death, Ty struggles, with the help of his analyst, over whether to return to Texas for the funeral.

Meddows is both hilarious and touching as Brother Boy, who, locked up for 20 years, has happily pursued his "career" in the asylum, entertaining his fellow patients with his "Country Queens" show, imitating Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Eve (Linda Meade), a Dr. Laura wannabe desperately in need of a therapist herself, is trying to "cure" Brother Boy of his homosexuality. This scene is written and played almost like a vaudeville skit, stressing the cruel absurdity of such an endeavor. It's a good example of how Reynolds and his actors successfully stay just this side of excess.

The rest of the cast is strong. Forsythe is great as the big-haired, gun-toting La Vonda, and Mark Moloney gets big laughs as the halfwit Odell. Doug Shelton brings sensitivity to Wardell, who still carries guilt over beating and betraying Brother Boy when they were young. Gina Garner uses her strong, stirring voice to serve as troubadour between scenes.

A few of the actors do come dangerously close to the tonal red zone. Penney Kols plays Sissy, the first Texas character we meet, and her billboard-size performance (imagine Jim Varney as Granny Clampett) threatens to launch us into cartoon land. But the arrival of Byers puts us on solid ground and lets us know we're in capable hands, where we remain for the rest of the evening. The play is physically challenging, with a large cast and four different locations, all brought together in one efficient set designed by Bryan Schulte. Russell J. Bettlach does a fine job defining character with his costumes, especially Latrelle's dresses, which instantly set her apart from the pack.