From the ease they have with each other, you can tell Del Shores and Dale Dickey go way back.
Of course, he’s a playwright and she’s an actress that have worked together several times; but the sense of comfortable familiarity they share goes deeper than professional respect – although there’s plenty of that to go around, too. It’s the kind of connection only possible when there are so many common threads binding two people’s lives together that they are comfortable enough to finish each other’s sentences.
The Blade spoke to the pair recently ahead of the upcoming LA premiere of Shores’ latest play, “This Side of Crazy,” which opens January 31 at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood.
The award-winning Texas-born Shores is best known for his play (and subsequent movie) “Sordid Lives,” which he later expanded into a prequel series for Logo and a sequel, “A Very Sordid Wedding.” Before that, he was a writer for shows like “Dharma and Greg” and “Queer as Folk,” and his second play, “Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?,” had already become an award-winning hit and spawned a movie adaptation.
As for Dickey, she’s a familiar face thanks to a career that has included memorable appearances on TV (“My Name is Earl,” “True Blood,” “Breaking Bad”) and an Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Winter’s Bone.”
Their latest project together is a play that sounds like it’s cut from the same cloth as “Sordid Lives,” in which a lauded gospel songwriter has promised a reunion appearance from her three adult daughters, once a beloved little-girl vocal trio (“little superstars for Jesus”), at a tribute concert dedicated to her music. The only problem is that the three women have been long estranged; the eldest is a Christian YouTuber, the youngest is a lesbian atheist, the middle girl (played by Dickey) is in a mental institution for “anger issues,” and the complicated circumstances of their past makes a reconciliation not only unlikely, but possibly inadvisable.
Their conversation with the Blade is below.
How did your paths first cross?
Del Shores: It was at a play, I think in ‘96, ironically at the Zephyr Theatre. It was a play by Horton Foote, and my friend who was in it, called me and said, “You have to come and see it tonight because Horton Foote is here and I know how much you love him.” So, I sat right behind Horton Foote – didn’t meet him, just soaked it in – and then this person flew on stage that played this crazy, drunk woman, and maybe five minutes into her performance I thought, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ Her work was just so truly mind-blowing.
Dale Dickey: Del was really complementary about my performance. He mentioned how much he appreciated having real southern people in his shows, and asked if maybe I would audition for him sometime. He was getting ready to do a revival of “Daddy’s Dyin,” and so I went and auditioned for him – and he cast me. And that was the beginning of that. It’s been like, 23 years, and this is our seventeenth collaboration.
DS: And by the way, that was the last time she ever had to audition for me.
Dale is not the only one you keep bringing back. There’s a whole cadre of players that seems to gravitate toward your work. Why do you think that is?
DD: I think almost all of us are from the south.
DS: Except for Bonnie Bedelia, she’s not really southern. And Olivia [Newton-John], of course. Maybe Southern Australia.
I like it because they hear the same thing that I hear. They hear the same song, they’re from the same dirt. I write with them in my head and I don’t really have to explain much. We’re so in sync.
DD: There are a lot of people who can play southern roles, who aren’t from the south, even though you know we all cringe when there’s a bad accent.
But you know, I could do a Neil Simon play, and do well, or David Mamet – but I wouldn’t be the perfect choice, as opposed to someone who grew up in that part of the country. I grew up in Tennessee, which is kinda similar to Texas, in many ways, so Del’s writing is just in my make-up, it’s in my bones.
So it’s more than just work that connects you.
DS: We have become family. We are all at each other’s houses, and functions, and holidays. We love each other. It’s the same thing in our gay community, sometimes we have to have a chosen family, or a ‘logical family,’ as Armistead Maupin says. I love that.
Speaking of family, it sounds like you’ve created another outrageous one for “This Side of Crazy.”
DS: It’s another dysfunctional family, and this one’s really twisted and dark.
You’re known for these over-the-top southern characters. Do you feel like they are exaggerations?
DS: I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating at all, I really don’t. I think that people who are not from the south sometimes think that, but people who were raised in the south see my plays and they go, ‘Oh, no, no, that’s the way it is.’ ‘Sordid Lives’ has the most extreme characters, I think, of my plays, and I can’t tell you how many people write to me and say, ‘Oh, I have an Aunt Cissy, I have an Aunt LaVonda,’ or ‘Juanita’ was my mother.’
I honestly didn’t even think my family was eccentric until I wrote “Daddy’s Dyin,’’ and people were talking about “Del Shores’ eccentric family.” I was like, “Oh, they are?”
DD: It’s heightened truth. Del’s plays have this high, high hilarity, and then boy, they just drop. That’s real life.
Is that what we can expect from “This Side of Crazy?”
DS: It has comedy, like all of my work does, but it also has some very intense drama, like a lot of my work as well has had.
What it comes down to, for me – there are certain crimes, certain sins, certain violations in relationships, where you have to ask, ‘Is forgiveness even possible?’ That’s what’s explored in this play. This woman has made a crazy promise, but there are these circumstances – it’s so extreme, these people should all probably never see each other again. They were all raised in the church, where forgiveness is a very big thing, but sometimes the circumstances are so severe that it’s almost impossible.
My theory is that a lot of people fake forgiveness, and there’s a lot of festering going on within the hearts and souls of people, and this play allows those all to explode.
DD: Very well put. Over the years, I’ve seen many families torn apart by tragedies, arguments, where they don’t talk to each other for years, and they suffer. People can suffer from that, when you cannot heal. It’s an important message.
“This Side of Crazy” runs from January 31 – March 8. For tickets and more information, visit www.delshores.com.