21 February 2013


MUNCIE, IN—Whole lot of preaching going on over at Muncie Civic Theatre's studio theater, and hymn-singing, and coming of age. Robby Tompkins elicits stand-out performances from four leading actors in a dynamic production of Southern Baptist Sissies by Del Shores that overcomes the script’s inherent preachiness to deliver a funny, moving piece of theater.

A preacher opens the play with fiery exhortations. Another Sunday in the Bible Belt. But no. One of the boys in the youth choir interjects a caustic remark, then another, and another. Ah, so the boy is now a grown man and the preacher’s words are among the memories of childhood he is sharing with us—memories that have lost little of their power to cut and wound.

How much power is made clear as Mark introduces himself and three other boys who grew up gay in a fundamentalist religion and church that relies on scripture to condemn homosexuality and demonize those who engage in it.

The tormented Mark (Ethan Litt) reacts in barely-supressed anger and rage to the mixed messages he receives both from the church and from his best friend and youthful love interest T.J. (Chandler Chastain): "come closer; go to hell." Litt's Mark moves at a furious clip throughout the story. He questions, argues, longs, and at last lands in a place that mingles bitterness with hope. 

Chastain offers a convincing portrayal of confusion, earnest denial and closeted self-righteousness. After an early taste of forbidden love, T.J. runs back into the closet and slams the door after him. 

On the surface, Benny (Matthew Bettencourt) has the easiest time embracing himself as he is. He lets his winning smile and ramrod posture carry him through life. As an adult he transforms himself into the fabulously outfitted country music diva Iona Traylor, offering high-energy lip-synched portrayals of such artists as Dolly Parton and Wynona Judd. Saturday night he drew whoops and cheers from his audience when he finished one number by doing the splits. 

On the other end of the self-acceptance spectrum, Jake Rura's sweet conflicted Andrew plots a tragic trajectory, turning in vain to family, church, and community for affirmation and support. He was able to bring forth real tears as in anguish he assailed heaven, "What's wrong with me? Why can't you love me?" 

Adding comic relief and ironic commentary on the whole affair is the oddball couple of straight floozy Odette Annette Barnett (Cheryl Crowder) and diminutive aging queen "Peanut" LeRoy (Bryan Hamilton). As Hamilton lends a sympathetic ear, Crowder delivers her one-liners with aplomb, and strikes the perfect tone in her more serious moments. Costume Coordinator Susan Lankford knocked herself out in dressing these two barflies. 

Undressing is the provence of John (J.P.) Bechtel III who appears as a male stripper at the bar. Musical Director Cody Ricks dons a red-sequined vest to serve music and drinks as pianist/bartender, doubling as church musician Brother Chaffey in traditional suit and tie. 

David Whicker's preacher is an instantly recognizable figure, and he strikes a balance between hellfire-and-brimstone delivery and caring, well-intentioned appeals. Molly Casey has the occasionally difficult juggling act of playing each of three mothers (“all but T.J.'s, cause his mother was dead, and that would be just weird,” Mark tells us). Ensemble players include assistant director Kodie Egenolf and Andrew Dalton (in his first stage appearance EVER, according to his cast bio—kudos to Tompkins for giving him a line to speak aloud).

Sid Ullrich's lighting design helps maintain focus and makes the most of limited stage area. The intimate studio space lends itself to emotionally-charged drama, and Tompkins delivers plenty of this.

At odds with the performance is the large and complex stained glass window that dominates the stage. It seems better suited to a Greek Orthodox cathedral than a traditional Baptist church. The window serves as backdrop to much of the story. Had Tompkins chosen instead to place a large cross of stained glass at the center of the action, he could have added layers of symbolism. The ways in which fundamentalist religion crucifies its gay adherents is central to the play's message.

Shore’s script is bitingly funny, sure, and heart-wrenching, but also melodramatic and sometimes downright preachy. Credit Tompkins and his strong acting ensemble for letting the story flow, delivering plenty of laughs and heartfelt performances full of soul.

The show is not for everyone. It’s very frank and explicit, rated NC-17. Yet there is much here that will resonate with anyone who has wrestled with themes of identity, self-discovery, acceptance, inclusion and the role of religion and the outsider. The play delivers a message of hope and love even as it calls for acceptance and tolerance. 

Southern Baptist Sissies continues at Muncie Civic Theatre's studio theatre through March 2.

Artwork used by permission.


  1. Great job. Thanks for sharing this. We need voices promoting openness and diversity. We all benefit when we live in a community that values all its members. We all benefit from being reminded of the importance of loving kindness. I'm looking forward to seeing the play this weekend.

  2. Saw it. Loved it. Powerful. Fearless actors. Go.
    - Webmaster:

  3. I've been contacting people, talking it up. And putting my money where my mouth is. Brought friends to see it the first time, will go back again tonight. Gotta love Muncie Civic for being a forward-thinking force for thought-provoking art in the community.

  4. David,
    Thanks for your note. I looked up the website and I thank you for your service in disseminating Mr. Lowe's thoughtful reflections and analysis. His "Letter to Louise" takes a different tact, but addresses similar themes to those Del Shore tackles in the script of the play. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Mr. Bruce Lowe of
    I've only skimmed your letter (Letter!?! Some 42 pages needs a heftier term than that!) to Louise, and already I'm very moved—moved by your listening to Louise and to your own first response, then your willingness to follow up and educate yourself . . . and to educate Louise and others, as well. Where have you been all my life? The church I once claimed as my own needs you and the due diligence you represent. Needs your openness, willingness to evaluate preconceived notions, courage in throwing wide your arms and heart.

  5. Thank you for speaking in our class today. You guys are awesome! Your stories are the kind of thing Indiana needs to hear. I hadn't heard about the play until now. It looks really cool. I wish I could see it. Thanks again.

  6. Jenny, Courtney,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Thanks for being a voice towards welcoming and celebrating diversity.