People are people, the platitude goes, and in Del Shores' comedy Sordid Lives, we peer into a family similar to many: Sisters squabble, an aunt struggles to quit smoking, a gay son worries about coming out. Oh, there is a gay-transvestite brother locked in a mental institution who has spent 20 years impersonating country-music singers, but more on him in a moment. When Theatre Downtown's production emphasizes the humanity and relationships of these addled folk, the laughs land squarely and meaningfully. When things wander into clowning, the laughs still come sporadically but are a lot more hollow. Shores split his play into four distinct scenes, and things get off to a rousing start as small-town Texas resident Sissy Hickey (Pam Baumann) worries about burying her recently deceased sister while trying to quit smoking by snapping herself with a rubber band. "It's called behavioral modifi... something," she sputters to a friend on the phone. Things immediately get awkward as Noleta (Peri Hope) drops by with a tuna-noodle casserole. It's the kind of small town, by the way, where name dropping means pointing out the canned soup in the casserole comes from Campbells and the potato chips are Lays. In other words, everyone knows everyone else's business. And in this case, the sordid business at hand is the fact Sissy's dearly departed sister died in a motel room with Noleta's husband. The set, by James Zelley, immediately evokes small-town life as Sissy tidies up stray paper plates, and fusses around a buffet of fried chicken and potato salad from well-meaning neighbors. And Baumann lets her words rush out faster and faster as we see her brain just gasping for a cigarette while she tries to keep the peace between her nieces, the uptight Latrelle (Katrina Tharin) and easy-going LaVonda (Marion Marsh). The play wobbles in its middle section, however, as the pace seems to slow and some actors veer toward caricature. An extended bit in which male characters are forced to dress in drag takes too long to get to its payoff (in part because Shores' script becomes repetitive). And in coke-snorting, fame-seeking Dr. Eve Bolinger, the performance by Jamie Lyn Hawkins goes so over the top that it's out of balance with Doug Boarman-Shorts, underplaying the outrageousness of Brother Boy, that drag-wearing mental patient who feels just fine dressed as Tammy Wynette, thank you. The production, directed by Fran and Frank Hilgenberg, gets its groove back in the final scene: a funeral in which family secrets are revealed, old hurts are healed, and maybe -- just maybe -- a few lessons are learned. As a framing device, Adam Del Medico opens each scene as closeted Ty, the youngest member of the family, talking about his life with his unseen therapist. Wide-eyed, Del Medico imbues each of his monologues with a growing sense of confidence and optimism, smile getting bigger and speech getting faster as he works up the nerve to be true to himself. He's the perfect example of how characters don't have to be larger or louder than life to draw laughs -- just being a messed-up human from a messed-up family in a messed-up town can be funny enough. That's something that Shores knew, and when Theatre Downtown's production finds those human moments, the humor hits both the funnybone and the heart.
What: A Del Shores comedy.
Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando.
When: 2:30 p.m. today, then 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, through June 26.
Cost: $18; $15 for students and seniors.
More info: 407-841-0083 or theatredowntown.net.