Colonial Players is helping make May a merry month with "Dearly Departed," a dark comedy that takes an irreverent look at the Southern rituals of burial.
Soon after the play begins, the family patriarch, Bud Turpin, keels over dead while listening to his wife read a sermonizing letter from his sister Marguerite. The David Bottrell and Jessie Jones comedy centers on how the dysfunctional family gets him buried.
Television actor-turned-playwright Bottrell has created a colorful assortment of characters hailing from trailer parks, prayer meetings, Alcoholics/Overeaters Anonymous and possible candidates for the Sally Jessie Raphael or Jerry Springer shows. Each has lines guaranteed to bring chuckles, but few of the characters seem to have been developed sufficiently by Bottrell to acquire much substance.
Colonial Players Director Joe Thompson has a strong cast that includes Mandy Dalton, a 1989 St. John's graduate who, as Bud's youngest child, turns eating into an art form as she stacks up doughnuts, smacks them down and swoops them into her mouth in a single gesture, or rests two Pringles inside her upper and lower lips to create a clown face.
Joe Del Balzo makes a spectacular acting debut as Bud's eldest son, hard-working, alcohol-prone Ray-Bud, who takes charge of his father's funeral arrangements.
Debbie Samek plays Bud's widow, Raynelle, the one character with a relatively firm grasp of reality, with hilariously understated honesty as she describes her dead husband to the Reverend Hooker as "mean as a snake" and asks that the words "mean and surly" be inscribed on his tombstone. Ray-Bud opts for "rest in peace," arguing that because it has one fewer letter, it will cost less.
In her CP debut, Julie Richman takes no prisoners as Junior's shrewish wife, Suzanne, who upon discovering a strange earring makes Junior suffer. Riding in a make-believe car, Richman is so convincing that when she turns to ask her make-believe children in the back seat if they would "like to be put out on the road," we can almost see them. The tears and hysterics Richman summons on cue are impressive, and her country-diva song at the funeral is unforgettable.
Janet Luby's take-charge, Bible-spouting, hymn-singing Marguerite is powerful as she tells her son Royce that he is "the devil incarnate."
Later, leaning across her brother's casket to snap a photo of herself with him, she confides to the overly rouged corpse, "You look like Miss Kitty in 'Gunsmoke.'" Luby's singing of "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder" is worth the price of a ticket.
Other noteworthy performances include Kate Wheeler's miscarriage-prone Lucille, who is the socially proper Southern hostess intent upon serving corn dogs and preserving husband Ray-Bud's image.
Daniel Hackler Sullivan is convincing as long-suffering Junior, who has invested his savings in a machine to clean parking lots, hoping to gain respectability as a businessman. Sullivan gives Junior a degree of likable humanity the other characters lack.
Brian Blanchard gives a masterful portrayal of the cliche-spouting Hooker. Dani Wildason delivers high comic moments as Veda administering to her ill husband, Norval, nearly killing him with kindness, and Wildason handles the town vamp role of Juanita with equal aplomb.
Colonial Players theater on East Street is the place to be for the next month for light summer entertainment and easy laughs. The audience Sunday was kept laughing through most of the performance and clearly enjoyed the show.
But I wonder if anyone might have shared my wish to find a few characters to care more about. Maybe they don't exist in this television sitcom environment where reality is elusive and the scene shifts too quickly.
"Dearly Departed" continues on weekends through June 2. Reservations: 410-268-7373.