When Raleigh-based Theatre in the Park announced its plans to tackle David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’ gut-busting 1991 blue-collar comedy, Dearly Departed, which is a signature piece for the critically acclaimed Towne Players of Garner, comparisons were inevitable. Then when TIP executive director Ira David Wood III invited Towne Players mainstays Frances Stanley and Meg Dietrich to reprise their Dearly Departed roles as Bible-thumping zealot Aunt Marguerite and poor childless hand-wringing housewife Lucille Turpin, comparisons became mandatory.
TIP director David Wood takes the waves of laughter generated by Towne Players director Beth Honeycutt and cohorts in Garner Historic Auditorium and turns them into a virtual comic tsunami. Wood not only inspires his crackerjack cast to be all that they can be comically, but he also adds a silly sitcom-style soundtrack, complete with dog barks and the assorted sounds of more barnyard animals than Old McDonald ever had at any one time. Together, they kept last Friday’s opening night audience screaming with laughter. Indeed, there would have been TIP patrons rolling in the aisles — if the aisles were wide enough.
Frances Stanley is hilarious as the irrepressible Aunt Marguerite, a female Foghorn leghorn who raises self-righteousness to an art form, especially when bellowing at her shiftless son Royce (Towne Players regular Jeffrey Nugent), whose penchant for playing heavy-metal music and dressing and acting like Rosemary’s baby all grown up really sticks in Marguerite’s craw.
Nugent’s impishly irreverent impersonation of Royce is a real crowd-pleaser; and Phil Crone — although a decade too old for the role — is a pip as hot-tempered auto mechanic Ray-Bud Turpin, whose penniless unemployed little brother Junior (Larry Evans) is driving him to distraction — not to mention rapidly putting him in the Poor House — by recklessly incurring funeral expenses that Ray-Bud alone will have to pay.
Larry Evans and Leanne Norton-Heintz make quite a comic pair as Junior and his high-strung wife Suzanne Turpin, who is eyebrow deep in disappointment over the way her life with Junior and their three monstrous children has turned out; and Meg Dietrich is funny as Lucille Turpin, hopelessly depressed by her inability to get and stay pregnant.
Kelly McConkey is a hoot in her dual roles as Delightful, the delightfully ditzy baby of the beleaguered Turpin family, and the much-married Nadine, who seems to have more children than the Old Woman in the Shoe.
As Raynelle Turpin, the dry-eyed widow of Big Bud (Bob Harris in a knee-slapping silent cameo), Janis Coville is an island of sanity in a series of madcap scenes. When asked by her preacher to choose Big Bud’s epitaph, she adamantly insists that it should read “Mean and Surly,” because that’s the kind of insensitive jerk he was.
Bob Harris quickly becomes a crowd favorite as he does quadruple duty as a scowling Big Bud, as his decrepit and incoherent old friend Norvell, as Ray-Bud’s crusty rough-as-a-cob boss Clyde, and especially as the hapless Rev. Hooker, who contracts an epic case of Montezuma’s revenge right before he has to preach Big Bud’s funeral. Margo Schuler also puts a fine polish on a couple of comic cameos of Norvell’s well-meaning but wacky friend and caretaker Veda and the insufferably conceited Juanita, the proud-as-punch former Yam Queen – and don’t you ever forget it.
The dark rustic wooden set contrived by scenic and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson provides a down-home flavor to the proceedings; costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson dresses her Wal-Martians to a tacky fare-thee-well; and sound designer Will Mikes helps make the big laughs even bigger in this uproarious comic smorgasbord, so cleverly cooked up and served with such great gusto by multitalented TIP director David Wood, who even sings an old familiar hymn in a character voice to add yet another guffaw to this veritable laff riot.
Theatre in the Park presentsDearly Departed Friday, June 20 and 27, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 22 and 29, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. $21 ($13 students and active-duty military personnel and $15 seniors 60+). 919/831-6058 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Note 1: Arts Access, Inc., will audio-describe the 8 p.m. June 20th performance of Dearly Departed. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/. Dearly Departed: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/currentproductions/dearlydeparted.html [inactive 11/09].