Funerals aren’t funny; but, with the eccentric characters found in the South, they can be. Bringing family members together, funerals provide the perfect catalyst to air dirty laundry. Add to it an eclectic set of misfits, drunks and crazies, and hilarity and chaos ensues.
Coming to Cape Fear Playhouse, Big Dawg Productions’ imagining of “Dearly Departed” aims to deliver laughs through farce. The play was performed at Thalian Hall by Opera House Theatre Company 10 years ago. Originally conceived by playwrights David Bottrell and Jesse Jones, it debuted in 1991 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. The same year it made its way to Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre and to much acclaim. Eventually, “Dearly Departed” came alive on the silver screen under the name “Kingdom Come,” and starred Whoopi Goldberg, L.L. Cool J., Jada Pinkett Smith, and Loretta Devine.
The play chronicles the Turpin family as they gather for their father’s funeral. Ray-Bud (Randy Davis) turns to the sauce. Junior (Joshua Lowry) deals with financial ruin and a rowdy bunch of children. Delightful (Beth Raynor), their spinster sister, finds comfort in food. A slew of eclectic neighbors and friends aid them in their hour of need.
Ron Hasson, 2013 Wilmington Theater Award nominee (Best Original Production, “One Up”) takes the director’s chair; a perfect fit given his orientation toward comedy. He has performed in many plays and for numerous theatre companies across town (Big Dawg, Browncoat, TheatreNOW) and has written original comedies “One Up,” “Chat Room,” and “Severe.” Plus, he’s no newbie to direction, as he oversaw Hank Toler’s “Murder on the Set” and two original productions of “A Christmas Carol.” Hasson now turns his attention to capturing the humor of “Dearly Departed.”
“[It’s] one of a few plays that echoes a variety of tragic elements,” he describes. “But the main point is the laughs—finding them and feeding them to the audience.”
The play yucks it up with all things Southern. Hasson details that, while the play is not a musical, singing and dancing will delight viewers. The comical tunes will come from the Joy of Life Singers, comprising Susan Auten, Eliccia N. Edwards, Brandy Jones, and John Perkinson.
“‘Dearly Departed’ affirms the power of family to bring otherwise incompatible people together,” Hasson tells. “In that way, it plays a familiar tune. Through humor, it makes its points in unexpected, sneaky ways. With the father’s funeral as the backdrop, there are genuine feelings that erupt through all the ritual and tedium. What sparks these fires is often funny, but it is just as often resolved with a poignant message.”
Adding to the farce, the play’s 12-show run will feature a different deceased father each night. Big Dawg is calling for bids on 12 different men to take on the role, whether they’re community leaders, business owners, or simple theatre supporters. Bud will have no lines, and he is only on stage for a brief moment. To bid, folks must make a minimum donation of $100; Big Dawg will donate a portion of proceeds to local dog rescue groups. All winners will receive a curtain speech and two reserved seats to the performance. (Bids can be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, using the subject line”Dearly Departed.”)
Randy Davis, playing Ray-Bud, is quite familiar with the script already. He took on the role of Bryce in Opera House Theatre Company’s previous Wilmington production of “Dearly Departed.” With 20 years of comedy and improv experience, he’s been active in Wilmington’s theatre scene for last two years. Vanessa Welch, Davis’ better half for 15 years, will play Ray-Bud’s wife also of 15 years.
“Our house will be full of relatives for the run of the show (to help watch the kids), so Ray’s frustration at having his house invaded by all these people will [hit] very close to home,” Davis quips.
While organic onstage chemistry and a distinct Southern expertise help his performance, Davis’ real shining moment will come from his state-of-the-art mullet (forget Billy Ray Cyrus). However, its heart will come in capturing an entire family and myriad townsfolk in the confined space of Cape Fear Playhouse.
“Giving birth to a space onstage that exists free of moving parts was a challenge, made necessary for this production,” Hasson says. “Chairs and benches move, but lights, sounds and especially words will be the real moving parts.”
Audrey McCrummen is tasked with generating a set that accommodates the ensemble cast. Lights will be used to spotlight humor, and versatile steps and platforms will allow movement in the largely open space. The stage will be designed for fluidity, allowing the pace of scene changes to keep up with the quick-witted narrative. Costuming comes with a communal approach; Hasson presents ideas to cast members, but given they dress themselves according to what they think their characters would wear.
While family gatherings are often stress-inducing, “Dearly Deaprted” promises to be a laugh riot. The family dysfunction begins Friday, June 5th.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
Thurs.- Fri., June 5th-7th, 12th-14th, 19th-21st, 8 p.m. Sun., June 8th, 15th and 22nd, 3 p.m.