Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dearly Departed – More Giggles Than Grief…

Lonnie Duran, Krista Gardner, and Jeff Ekdahl

By Tina Arth

Losing the clan’s paterfamilias is generally regarded as something to mourn, but as Mask & Mirror Community Theatre’s current production of David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’ Dearly Departed illustrates, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The show fits neatly into the mold of southern comedy often seen in community theater productions, and generally included once per season at Mask & Mirror. True to type, it’s loaded with eccentric characters, big hair, down-home accents, and sit-com like one-liners – but this one is a bit more fun, and much funnier, because it’s edgier and less overtly stereotypical than others from the genre that I’ve seen.  Kudos to director Rick Hoover for setting some limits on his cast, averting the kind over-the-top cheap performances that so often dilute a script’s inherent wit.

The story begins with the sudden demise of Bud Turpin, the seriously red-necked patriarch of a rural southern clan – wife Raynelle, sons Ray Bud and Junior, daughter Delightful, Bud’s sister Marguerite, and nephew Royce. From Bud’s demise through his burial, we watch the family and an unusually eclectic array friends and relations as they expose the universal bonds of love, community, family ties and humor of this dysfunctional horde. Raynelle quickly makes it clear to the preacher that she wants no whitewashed eulogy for a man she can only describe as “mean and surly” (in fact, that’s what she wants on his tombstone). The sons are at each others’ throats, Delightful is an obsessive eater – add in financial problems, adultery, miscarriages, sloth, and real Bible Belt fundamentalism – clearly, the story could go very dark, but the authors have chosen to offer a much lighter vision.

Pat Romans plays Raynelle with honesty and directness that belies any stereotypes about born again Christians – audiences are just not expecting that level of casual contempt from the newly-bereaved, but Romans makes it clear that we’ll have to look elsewhere for hypocrisy (or even a modicum of tact). The mantle of ostentatious grief falls on the shoulders of Francine Raften, a control freak who delivers a classic Bible-thumping dose of rigid morality. Two very solid performances come from Lonnie Duran and Kira Smolev (Ray Bud and Lucille), who create a believable, hard-working, sensible couple that contrasts neatly with the hapless Junior (Jeff Ekdahl) and his wife Suzanne (Shannon Coffin), a shallow harridan with anger issues and a penchant for Dairy Queen who redeems herself at the end with a lovely funeral hymn.

Krista Gardner is a hoot as Delightful – like Mr. Goldstone in Gypsy, she has almost no lines but eats continuously (corn dogs are a particular favorite). Gardner’s magically swift hands manage to snatch food from other cast members with lightning speed, and she is hilariously deadpan throughout. Ted Schroeder’s “Royce” could be found in any family – Schroeder plays aimless and shiftless to perfection, with a nearly unbreachable emotional wall to protect him from Marguerite’s maternal manipulation. We don’t see much of John Knowles as the Reverend Hooker – he spends much of his biggest scene offstage, dealing with intestinal issues – but when he appears he definitely steals the show.

The sets are minimal, which is a real blessing in a show with so many scene changes in Act I, and the costuming absolutely appropriate to the time, diversity of the characters, and place (wherever that might be – we are told only that we are below the Mason-Dixon line). The brief role of Bud Turpin is filled with a different local personality for each performance, which adds a little more fun to the evening.

While Dearly Departed is being performed in a church and is generally family-friendly, there are a few situations that might not be appropriate for younger children (assuming they are old enough to figure out what’s going on) or people with particularly delicate sensibilities. However, that leaves a lot of folks who will really enjoy an evening with the Turpins!

Mask & Mirror’s Dearly Departed runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through November 18th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.