Somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a Baptist hymn rises heavily from a trailer park; its downbeat is the thud of a fat old redneck hitting the linoleum, and its discordant chorus is the sound of a dysfunctional family trying to harmonize just long enough to bury the S.O.B.
These are sounds you won't find in any self-respecting hymnal. The deceased, Bud Turpin, doesn't inspire much more of a eulogy from his widow, Raynelle, than "He was mean and surly." Son Ray-Bud wants to do the right thing by his father, but grumbles about every dollar being funneled to the discount funeral parlor run by a guy he'd bullied back in elementary school. Another son, Junior, agitates to go all-out with the funeral, but can't pay for anything, because he's lost everything in a failed parking-lot cleaning business, and his wife, Suzanne, is wailing not because of any particular love for Bud, but because she's just found out that what Junior has been swabbing is a lot curvier than any parking lot.
Meanwhile, Bud's sister, the sternly devout Marguerite, offers a steady stream of criticism that ties right in with her favorite pastime, domineering her adult son, Royce. "Life is not a good time, Royce," she snarls, brandishing her well-thumbed Bible. "Yeah," Royce replies, "you're living proof of that."
The Turpin family is not an easy one to like, especially if you're a member of that family. Yet it swarms through a highly entertaining play, Dearly Departed, a 1991 comedy by Jessie Jones and David Bottrell. The show was such a success for Live Theatre Workshop 3 1/2 years ago that the company has now launched a rousing revival.
It's the sort of play that gets easy laughs just by mentioning Kmart, and every 10 minutes comes a laugh at the expense of white trash everywhere. One couple shares romantic memories of their courtship, which took place on the sofa in the front yard. Somebody brings macaroni and ham loaf surprise to the funeral. These are Bible-thumpers and mulleted slackers, women whose tongues are as sharp as the men's minds are dull, easier targets than possums crossing a country road.
Sure, the characters are caricatures, but Jones and Bottrell hail from Kentucky and know whereof they speak. They're not Yankees making fun of the hicks; they are hicks who have risen above their hickdom to mock their own kind. And for this reason, it's not at all a vicious play; the writers actually have a fair amount of affection for their characters, and by the end, the characters reveal a fair amount of affection for each other.
And if the laughs are cheap and easy, at least they are plentiful. Says one character to another, who has just humiliated herself in public, "They never liked you before; you think they're gonna think any less of you now?"
The LTW actors, at least, are people we have liked before, and their work in Dearly Departed offers no cause for second thoughts. Indeed, they take this comedy seriously and resist falling into the broad, parodistic kind of acting that gets belly-laughs but flattens out the characters. The Turpins are ridiculous enough already; they don't need to be mocked by the actors, and the company's even-keeled but well-timed treatment (directed by Jeremy Thompson) makes us actually care a little about these kooky crackers.
This extends even to the treatment of the throwaway characters who pop up in the second-act divertissement, a series of little sketches of no real relevance to the plot involving new figures we'll never see again. Consider Holli Henderson, LTW's always-reliable expert in comic timing and balance. For most of this play, she portrays with her customary spirit a not particularly ridiculous young wife. But in one little scene in the funeral parlor, she assumes the role of an old woman in serious physical and mental decline caring for a husband in even worse shape. Henderson's deadpan performance is far more hilarious than had she taken a more superficial, cartoonish approach.
Indeed, every performer on stage finds just the right angle on his or her character, from the relatively straightforward Cliff Madison as the exasperated Ray-Bud and Jeremy Thompson as Royce, through Stephen Frankenfield and Jodi Rankin as the more buffoonish Junior and Suzanne, to Kristi Loera as the hard and, yes, one-dimensional church lady, Marguerite. Megan Patno has the right melange of ennui and disgust as a perpetually snacking goth daughter; Dyan Roosma is fine as a self-centered former beauty queen, and Larry Fuller remarkably refuses to play the preacher like a Jimmy Swaggart clone. Best of all, perhaps, is Joan Van Dyke as the widow Raynelle; she's the most believable and human of them all, despite her tendency to pronounce "Bud" as a three-syllable word.
The set is nonexistent except for a couple of box modules and a card table, which facilitates the fast and frequent scene changes. The sound design by Michael Martinez works in perfect synchronization with the live action, including the all-important belch and fart cues. Clearly, this production of Dearly Departed has all the right priorities.