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Queen Hank primps again in Sordid Lives 

It's been slightly more than two years since Queen City Theatre Company arrived on the scene with Sordid Lives at Duke Energy Theatre. If it seems longer, the sheer variety of directions QCTC has pursued accounts for the illusion: they've been elegant in Educating Rita, satirical in Dog Sees God, campy in Mommie Dearest, and wicked in Dangerous. Although they've only done two musicals, Side Show and Altar Boyz certainly span an impressive range. They've pushed the envelope by staging productions in four different venues and stretched it by bringing in three notable cabaret acts, Coco Peru, the Kinsey Sicks, and Emily Skinner.

And they've descended to the dreck of Spooky Dog and the Teen-Age Gang Mysteries, the most breathtakingly stupid show I've seen this side of ImaginOn.

Now they've circled back to Winters, Texas, and Del Shores' "black comedy about white trash." With a stronger cast -- and the return of key blue-chip performers even more steeped in their roles -- Sordid Lives delivers more guilty pleasures the second time around.

Just watch Hank West, the queen of Queen City Theatre, bustling through the dehomosexualization scene at a Texas mental institution, where "Brother Boy" Ingram has languished for 15 years because he had the audacity to come out as gay and come on to genial barkeep "Bubba" Owens. Decked out in outré makeup and housecoat, West flounces into Dr. Eve Bollinger's office with the same éclat of yore. But see him fussing with his handbag: it isn't merely an accessory anymore -- it's practically an appendage.

Jennifer Grant shows more radical improvement as Sissy Hickey, Brother Boy's wishy-washy sibling, as she attempts to maintain family peace -- and quit smoking -- in the wake of her mom's bizarre death. Grant nearly has all her lines this time, and she's picked up the pace in the key opening scene.

Of course, the circumstances of Peggy Ingram's death are the benchmarks of Texas trashiness and hypocrisy. Upstanding Wintersians apparently tolerate cripples far better than gays, for Peggy died during a sordid tryst with G.W. Nethercott after tripping over G.W.'s stumps in a poorly lit motel room. Nor was Peggy the only local attracted to amputees, for G.W. is the husband of her granddaughter La Vonda's best friend, Noleta. Makes Peggy's senile fling extra tacky, don't you think?

G.W. should be a hilarious character, but Steve Rosswick doesn't triumph over Shores' lame writing any more than Gray Rikard did in 2007. Becky Porter is a significant enhancement as Latrelle Williamson, the Ingram Family's self-appointed minister of damage control. No matter how she scrunches her kindly round face, Porter seems a mite too warm-hearted for Latrelle's aversion to Brother Boy, her denial of her son Ty's homosexuality, and her strenuous objections to mama being laid to rest in her mink stole. And so she turns out to be in the end. Just barely.

Latrelle's labors are compounded over the course of the evening by the vengeful rampage of La Vonda and Noleta at Bubba's Bar, reprised by Christy K. Basa and Jennifer Quigley with a trashiness their role models, Thelma and Louise, could only envy. Besides Bubba and G.W., dimwitted Odell Owens (Bubba's bro) finds himself in the path of the Texas cyclone sorority, and Matt Kenyon may be dumber and swishier than he was last time. Phil Taylor nicely integrates Bubba's petty bickering with Odell and his contrite affection toward Brother Boy. Jes Dugger steps -- staggers, really -- into the role of Juanita, the late Peggy's best chum in her latter days, so soused that punishing her seems to be a pointless option.

Amanda Liles sets an altogether trashier, more desperate tone as Dr. Eve without damaging the wacky doctor-patient chemistry at the asylum. Two years of extra confidence and experience make Josh Looney all the more convincing as former soap star Ty Williamson, Latrelle's gay son -- and all the more relaxed as our narrator.

Although he barely appears for more than one of the comedy's four scenes, Queen Hank remains the main attraction. At the final funeral scene, West approaches mamma's coffin with all the solemn majesty of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and all the glitter of the Chrysler Building.

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