Photo by Seth Ward Pyatt

Play:        “Southern Baptist Sissies”

Group:        Citilites Theatre

Venue:        Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates:        March 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27

Tickets:    $17-$20; contact, or 314-773-1879

Story:    Mark, T.J., Andrew and Benny have grown up in Dallas in the tradition of the Southern Baptist Church.  As our narrator Mark points out, the four of them were different from their other 36 classmates, different enough to be called “sissies.”  While Benny was overtly gay from an early age, the other three come to terms with their sexuality in varying degrees. Mark realizes as a young teen his physical attraction to men, particularly T.J., while T.J. and Andrew fight their impulses to the extent that T.J. has a girlfriend when he enrolls at Baylor University.

All are baptized into Jesus, although Mark does so more as a way to get closer to T.J.  As they grow older, their sexuality is challenged by their affable but strict preacher as well as their parents and, to varying degrees, the boys themselves.

Highlights:    The fifth in playwright Del Shores’ series of plays about growing up gay in Texas, “Southern Baptist Sissies” is a mature and introspective look at the impact of homosexuality on a quartet of young men over the past two decades or so.  Written in 2000, the two-act drama explores the twin themes of gay sexuality and its condemnation by the conservative Christian denomination in which the boys grew up and which still wields influence on them, whether willingly or reluctantly, into their adult years.

    The true wisdom of Shores’ effort, though, is its sophisticated look beyond the individuals who pass judgment on people different from them to the all-embracing love of a superior God, rather than the more common church-bashing of many of his contemporaries.  It’s a wise and adult approach that works in elevating the entire Citilites Theatre production that is directed in stylish and intelligent style by GP Hunsaker.

Other Info:    At two and a half hours, Shores’ effort drags noticeably in spots, particularly a first act that lingers at least 10 minutes too long.  There are other points where pruning would improve, not diminish, the impact of the presentation.  Generally, though, “Sissies” is engaging and absorbing material, and finely wrought under Hunsaker’s careful guidance.

    James Slover, Justin Ivan Brown, Drew Pannebecker and Tyler Whiteman each brings warmth and complexity to his respective role, fleshing out the characters with depth and dimension that realize their characters’ potential.  Brown is delightful in the most flamboyant part, as female impersonator Benny, while Slover is very good as the tormented Mark, whose questioning of his church’s values continues into a largely dissatisfying life as an unsuccessful journalist and a man unable to achieve the happiness he yearns for.

    Pannebecker and Whiteman offer finely etched portrayals of T.J. and Andrew, respectively, the former desperately denying his sexuality despite an early episode with Mark, while the latter carefully treads into his own identity to the dismay and anger of his mother.

    Shores embellishes the story with some ancillary characters who frequent a gay bar and offer philosophical ruminations on their own lives.  Michael Shreves and Cindy Duggan are engaging as a drifting, middle-age gay man and his straight drinking partner, a woman who has left numerous situations because of “tragic” circumstances that she cannot divulge, while Seth Ward Pyatt dutifully pours their libations and offers a sympathetic ear.

    Alice Kinsella effectively portrays each of three mothers (T.J. lives with his widowed, military father), from Benny’s provocative, trailer-trash parent to Andrew’s uptight and unhappy mom to Mark’s concerned but loving mother, bringing a particular perspective to each of the presentations.  P. Michael Murphy is a delight as the portly preacher who favors an ill-fitting wardrobe to match his simple view of the world as laid down in the Old Testament (Joshua Thomas will fill this role from March 20-27), and Devin Przygoda plays a wily stripper in a few select scenes.

    Hunsaker’s scenic design offers a simple, church-like setting offset by Mark’s desk at one end and Benny’s dressing room at another, all nestled beneath an overhanging painting focused on a foreboding cross that dominates the word “truth” on its multi-hued canvas.  Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes are highlighted by Benny’s flamboyant drag attire that contrasts big wigs and tight dresses with the rigid black pants, white shirts and narrow ties of the boys and the varying threads of the assorted mothers.  Pyatt provides a suitable range of melodies for the scenes in church or nightclub, with lighting added by Steven Miller.

    “Southern Baptist Sissies” is absorbing and thoughtful material compellingly presented in Citilites Theatre’s satisfying production.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.