The Zephyr Theatre's season-long retrospective of plays by Del Shores features revivals in every sense. Hymns echo across scene changes, preachers of every stripe deliver their personal gospel and salvation (of flesh and spirit) is on everyone's wish list.
So despite a promisingly sassy title, "Southern Baptist Sissies" (first staged in 2000) turns out to be more sermon than romp. Mark Lee Fuller (David Ojalvo), sifting through memories of his fundamentalist Christian youth and sexual awakening, bristles with righteous indignation and self-hatred. The play's dilemma -- how gay men can accept themselves when the communities closest to their hearts condemn them -- feels as relevant as ever. But Shores' palpable agony has an awkward stage presence: The play's self-conscious, repetitive writing feels nearly as labored as the bigotry it targets.
Less didactic -- and hence considerably more fun -- is "Sordid Lives," Shores' 1996 celebration of white trash talk, upper-arm flab and people's infernal insistence on being who they are. In a small Texas town, folks are aflutter over the death of Peggy Hickey, a randy senior who tripped over the wooden legs of her 'Nam vet lover in a cheap hotel room and collided with the bathroom sink. Like all wacky Southern deaths, this one sets off no end of trouble, as long-held resentments (and undergarments) are inappropriately revealed. In truth, the plot's beside the point. The real reason to brave the sold-out crowds at the cozy Zephyr is to witness the performances of Shores regulars, reprising roles that have become the stuff of local legend.
As Brother Boy, institutionalized after demonstrating a preference for boys and long blond wigs, the diminutive Leslie Jordan triumphs. Simultaneously channeling Truman Capote, Lindsay Lohan and Lamb Chop, he wrings a universe of comedy and pathos from every syllable.
My personal favorite was Dale Dickey's put-upon Sissy, the deceased's sister. With her lipstick-slashed mouth and a ferocious hair roll coiled against her forehead, she prowls her homestead clutching a rotary phone and peeking through the front door, vainly trying to head off trouble -- only to have it show up and tuck in to her tasty fried chicken.
These performances slip past camp toward the near-transcendent: They're outing everyone's deepest vulnerability, revealing the way our defenses against the pain of living are both our foolishness and greatest charm.
As a director and playwright, Shores needs a lighter hand -- he cues plaintive piano music when the dialogue gets heartfelt -- and both shows are 20 minutes too long. Shores wants to answer questions instead of frame them, a strategy that torpedoes any dramatist. His forte is character, not debate, and halfway through "Sissies' " exhaustingly sincere confessions, I couldn't help but think of a retort to self-pity from "Sordid Lives": "Get off the cross. We need the wood."
We need him, though. "Season of Shores" marks a yearlong feast of cheerfully vulgar compassion, and everyone's welcome at the table.
'Season of Shores'
Where: Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood
Price: $25 to $45
Contact: (800) 595-4849
What: "Southern Baptist Sissies," 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 2. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
What: "Sordid Lives," 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 23. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.