Few Southern writers can pen a piece of literature with nuance-filled chicanery that doesn’t cross over to cliché. I suppose it’s the bane of any region’s citizenship, really—to encounter a slew of stereotypes day in, day out, and have them played out in books, films, plays, and other artistic mediums worldwide and to no avail. We’ve all endured it: Northerners are bossy rogues. Southerners are lazy dimwits. Midwesterners are easy-going people-pleasers. Northwesterners are liberal hippies. Southwesterners are criminally shallow.
Being from the South, it’s exhausting to constantly explain how we eat more than Vienna sausages, shrimp ‘n’ grits, and chicken and waffles, and we don’t all live in trailer parks with a dozen kids tugging at our legs. Some of us have more than an eighth-grade education, and not all of us depend on scripture to cure what ails us. But that doesn’t necessarily make for easy laughs, now, does it? Southern comedy in the 21st century no longer follows the hailed footsteps of greats like Tennessee Williams, who understood the intricacies of illuminating ghosts and inner turmoil of the South with subtle artistry. Today, the humor is slathered in grease and served from a bucket of Southern Fried Comedy. It burns your face, titillates with an easy, ballistic craze, and always packs a Jerry Springer-worthy punch.
Enter the Turpin family, from “Dearly Departed,” the latest Big Dawg Productions’ play now showing at Cape Fear Playhouse off Castle Street. Written by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, the show centers around patriarch Bud Turpin, who happens to drop dead at the breakfast table while reading the morning paper. His sons, the good one, Ray-Bud (Randy Davis), and the bad one, Junior (Joshua Lowry), must step up to help their mother, Raynelle (Felicia Diana Potts), and sister, Delightful (Beth Raynor), get through the funeral. A slew of extended family members and friends show up along the way to help plan and execute the final goodbye for a man they essentially thought was mean and surly throughout his life.
What works in “Dearly Departed” is our local cast. Everyone onstage deserves attention for their dedication to playing these caricatures. One of the best comes in Jaimie Harwood’s Suzanne. Harwood succinctly uses bug-eyes and a growling yell—regardless of the words actually spoken—to clearly showcase the bitter wife and harsh disciplinarian she has become. She could be the poster child for the book, “How to Successfully Emasuclate Your Deadbeat Husband”—not to say it’s not easy to do in her situation. Lowry as her husband, Junior, showcases a character with numb vacancy that is very palpable. It’s like he’s stuck in a puddle of quicksand. When he turns into a puppy-dog beggar toward the end of the play—trying to win back Suzanne after his affair with a local harlett becomes apparent—it’s no where near as effective or moving.
Randy Davis as Ray-Bud stands out most among likable characters—and not just because he looks like Danny McBride and sports an awesome Gilley’s T-shirt (“Urban Cowboy,” anyone?). He manages to dial back over-the-top shenanigans that the rest of the family get thrown into. He’s like the “put-together” son, who can hold down a job and actually married someone he loves. Of course, he’s not devoid of insanity. I mean, after all, his downright adorable wife, Lucille (Vanessa Welch), had a miscarriage in a chicken bucket. Welch plays that sweet Southern belle who masters neutrality well. She remains even-keeled in sticky situations, and knows how to make everyone feel welcome regardless of her own needs; it’s the pentacle of a Southern upbringing among women.
Felicia Potts as the matriarch packs a forth-right one-two punch that I love. She’s honest to a fault and says what she thinks without a filter yet with a respectable demeanor. She’s plain Jane, and her disdain for her dead husband doesn’t feel ingrateful or even spiteful; it just is. The audience gets this without it degrading the Raynelle character.
Playing her sister, Margueritte, is Irene Slater. Slater, too, brings the sass that Potts has, yet she lets it loose with more aggression. She counts her son Royce’s blasephemies minute by minute, inevitably followed by “endearing insults,” and she’s far more vain—as seen with one impressive Dolly Parton-wannabe wig. Potts and Slater showcase a nice dichotomy between the interesting and similar parallels of characteristics of sisters. It works to their connectivity.
The fun of the cast gets rounded out by Raynor’s Delightful. In a house of noise, she is the golden child of silence—with deadpan eyes and quick-to-grab fingers that fuel her food addiction. She offers up a teenager who hates the world—or maybe just her surroundings—rather well.
Susan Auten and John “Perk” Perkinson also bring stellar cameos as Norval and Veda. They keep the crowd hunched over in laughter. Perkinson understands physical comedy to a tee and nails it. It even broke Auten’s concentration during Sunday’s performance. The always pro actress broke a sly smile that almost erupted into laughter, which made the audience roar even more.
I love the way Director Ron Hasson handles the breaks between sets. Four stage hands move furniture and sing hymnals, which come through appropriately ironic considering the thick of the plot. It ties in nicely to the fire-and-brimstone scripture threading some of the dialogue. Carter McKaughan does a solid job bridging that gap during a radio-show monolgue that nicely sums up what so many of us in the South think over all the hemming and hawing of life: Stop your bellyaching—we all got problems!
Though not subtle—and not anything we haven’t seen before (“Hallelujah Girls,” “Sordid Lives,” “Dixie Swim Club”)—“Dearly Departed” embraces clichés of Southern life many will find hilarious: trailer parks, funeral-fainting, infidelity, chicken buckets, unruly kids, bad business ideas, Bible-thumping … it’s all there. Though I prefer my humor more subtle, “Dearly Departed” has an audience awaiting its adoration. Maybe Dad will, too, come this Sunday, Father’s Day. Let just hope he’s no Bud Turpin.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street
Thurs.- Fri., June 12th-14th, 19th-21st, 8 p.m. Sun., June 8th, 15th and 22nd, 3 p.m.