Growing up Southern Baptist is no piece of cake for the four title characters in Southern Baptist Sissies, the fifth production of Theatre Out’s 2010 season.


Mark (Justin Hambey) channels his anger at the church into gay activism. T.J. (Michael Rachlis) quotes Leviticus and marries a woman in an attempt to sublimate the desire he feels for other men. Andrew (Paul Anderson) focuses on prayer as a way to rid himself of his same-sex longings. Benny (Tito Ortiz) tries to find escape in the drag queen persona of Iona Traylor. Try as they might, however, none of these Southern Baptist Sissies can ever completely overcome the guilt and shame inculcated in them by a church that sentences them and their kind to eternal damnation.

Did I mention that Southern Baptist Sissies is (mostly) a comedy?

Only Del Shores, the author of Sordid Lives, could take as serious a subject as religion-based internalized homophobia—and make it as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Southern Baptist Sissies is.  At the same time, Shores’ fifth play—following Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got The Will?), Daughters Of The Lone Star State, Cheatin’, and Sordid Lives—doesn’t skirt the drama that its subject matter inspires. The playwright had come out as a gay man only several years before Sissies’ 2000 premiere, and like its character Mark, he was using his talents as a writer to deal with the anger that fuels Southern Baptist Sissies.


Still there are nearly as many laughs in Sissies as in Sordid Lives, the first Shores play to feature a major gay storyline, and many of them come from a subplot involving a pair of barflies named Peanut (Stan Jenson) and Odette Annette Barnett (Lori Kelley). It’s Peanut to whom Shores gives such comedic pearls as “I’m just a social drinker.  You have a drink and so shall I,” “A woman oughta act like a woman—and a man can act like a woman if he wants to,” and “It’s my new scent.  It’s called ‘Come To Me.’ Does it smell like cum to you?”  Odette gets her fair share of laughs too, repeatedly referring to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and vaunting her complete lack of a gag reflex.

Southern Baptist Sissies is Theatre Out’s first production of a Shores’ play, and a mostly successful one at that, thanks to Christopher Diehl’s confident direction and a number of excellent performances.


Ortiz captures all of Benny’s flamboyant fabulousness, lipsynching Dolly, Wynonna, and Shania to drag queen perfection when he’s not fanning himself in church or gabbing girl-to-girl with the audience. Jenson’s colorful performance as Peanut pays tribute to its originator, Leslie Jordan, all the while making the role very much his own—a grown-up sissy we come to love and respect. Roxie Lee does memorable work as three very different Southern Baptist mothers, one trashy, one smug, one heartbreakingly caring. Delfin Lopez couldn’t be better as the slick but smarmy Southern Baptist preacher, whether sermonizing about hellfire and damnation or having heart-to-hearts with two of Lee’s mothers. Richard DeVicariis shows off his talents at the piano, tinkling the ivories in the dual roles of church accompanist Brother Chaffey and bar pianist Houston.

The charismatic Rachlis does dynamic work as T.J., particularly in his Bible-thumping confrontations with Mark, and reveals his chiseled physique in a dual role as a gay-club stripper. He’d be better still if he showed evidence in early scenes of the adolescent sissyboy T.J. tells Mark he worked so hard to “eliminate any trace, and sound of.”  Kelley does entertaining work as Odette, and has great chemistry with Jenson, though a bit more digging deep into her character’s emotional torment would make Odette’s climactic scene even more powerful. Anderson is very effective at showing Andrew’s sweetness, his love for Jesus, and the conflicts this presents with his budding same-sex urges, but his performance could benefit from greater emotional depth in Andrew’s final scene, one which should be the play’s most heart-wrenching but at present mostly skims the surface.

Finally, there is Mark, played by the very likable Hambey, a young musical theater performer who nails some of his character’s most intense moments, crying real, heartbreaking tears—no small feat.  More work is needed, however, to give Mark’s dialog and speeches greater spontaneity, to avoid swallowing syllables, and finally to show us from the get-go the very real anger that fuels the adult Mark’s mission in life.  

David C. Carnevale gets high marks for Southern Baptist Sissies’ production design, from its versatile three-part set to its effective lighting to its just-right costumes (ranging from the Sissies’ Sunday best to Peanut’s polyester and leather ensembles to the Mothers’ very different, character-defining garb).

A lot has changed in the ten years since Southern Baptist Sissies premiered in Hollywood in 2000, a year in which few could have predicted same-sex marriage becoming legal anywhere in the U.S. or the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians in American society.  One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the church and home environment that shaped Mark, T.J., Andrew, and Benny in their traumatic childhood and adolescent years.  The public figures referenced in Southern Baptist Sissies may have passed on, and new country pop divas emerged for Benny to impersonate in 2010, but Del Shores’ play remains as relevant, as funny, and as impactful as ever.  Theatre Out now gives audiences in the OC a chance to discover many of its rewards. 

Note: There is brief, non-frontal nudity.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley 
August 22, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Bill Boland

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