Big Dawg Productions starts their season off with a bang! (Or at least, a sold-out first weekend for “Dearly Beloved,” which is a wonderful beginning for the new year.) In the same way Neil Simon has been a crowd-pleaser in Wilmington for years, so is the writing trio known as Jones Hope Wooten (Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten). They have provided several hits for Big Dawg over the last few years, including “The Dixie Swim Club” and “The Hallelujah Girls.”
“Dearly Beloved” takes audiences to Fayro, Texas, the small town that is a stand-in for all small Southern towns. Tina Jo Dubberly (Sarah Burns) has managed to land the richest boy in town, and her momma (Melissa Stanley) is determined to show the snooty Price family the Dubberlys are a classy lot. However, she doesn’t count on the dramatic return of her five-time divorced sister, Honey Raye Futrelle, who is played with devastating conviction by Jenny McKinnon Wright. Just as much, she doesn’t anticipate the well-intentioned but embarrassing assistance of her other sister, Twink Futrelle (Terri Batson). Though an ensemble piece, the center of all the action is the relationship between the sisters. These three are perfectly cast for their roles. Stanley is a straight woman to the highjinx of Batson and Wright, who are both prepared to go to any lengths for a laugh. Wright is completely convincing when she strips down to her slip and straddles the buffet table to carve a turnkey with a vengeance. She is interrupted by the appearance of Patsy Price (Suzanne Nystrom), mother of the groom and general rich-bitch extraordinaire.
Stanley Batson’s sweet-but-befuddling attempts to get her niece married and ensure her own future happiness—which includes sponsorship of the wedding reception by the local butcher (compete with banners, 300 pounds of donated barbeque and government subsidy cheese that might be deadly)—are all delivered with such honestly and simple devotion that not only could no one be mad at her, but she demonstrates her command of farce irrefutably. I have long marveled at Batson’s comedic talent, but paired with these two, it is a team that’s almost heaven sent.
The bride of the day makes only a brief appearance before the festivities get underway. From that moment on, it is her twin sister, Gina Jo (also played by Burns), who becomes the main concern. Burns is given a very short time to present Tina Jo to the audience and to differentiate her from her twin. This is the first of her two objectives for the evening. The second is to convince the audience that shy Gina Jo is quietly acting upon her first serious crush. She and Hal Cosec both sparkle in their scenes together. Cosec could probably charm any woman he wanted onstage, but to see him and Burns together as two uncertain, bashful people is a surprising delight.
Perhaps it is Charles Auten, as the overly medicated, hallucinating Wiley Hicks, who turns in the most memorable performance. In a truly over-the-top show, he manages to top everyone else while probably fulfilling a personal life goal of acting as the hand of God.
The townsfolk are rounded out with wonderful appearances from Rhoda Jane Gary as a would-be psychic and Charles Calhoun II as a loquacious police officer, trying to do right by everyone—especially, his best buddy, Dub (Steve Rassin).
The ever-delightful Deb Bowen makes one of her all-too-rare stage appearances to remind us just why florists and bus dispatchers, though underappreciated, are central to our lives.
The schmaltzy, sweetness of Jones Hope Wooten comedies continue to appeal to people; probably because they speak to the optimism many of us have about our family life. “Dearly Beloved” is no disappointment in that arena, and delivers everything it promises.
In the past few years, Big Dawg Productions, though working in a small and fairly limited space, has developed a reputation for pretty substantial production values (especially, in the scenic department). Audrey McCrummen and her crew continue to surprise. The dresses that Stanley and Batson wear for the “Gone with the Wind” wedding are breathtaking and must be the work of Debbie Sheu, costumer of the Azalea Belles. Director Randy Davis also designed the set, which is simple, functional and highlights the performers.
The first weekend sold out, and there is reason to believe tickets will go quickly for the remaining performances. With such a talented cast who is clearly having a ball onstage, it is easy to see why this show feels infectious. Davis also is directing “Christmas Belles” (i.e. the Dubberlys do Christmas) this winter for Big Dawg. It looks like it will be the perfect bookend to the season.
At present, there are 10 more Jones Hope Wooten shows yet to be produced here, which makes one speculate that there are many more sentimental laughs in our future over at the Cape Fear Playhouse. Hopefully, there are many more sold out weekends for theatre across the area.
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Thurs..-Sun., Feb. 12-15, 19-22 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.