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Theatre in the Park's Dearly Departed

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Dearly Departed
Theatre in the Park
Through June 29

The only real surprises in this predictable low-grade Southern farce (which TIP stages in rotating rep with Dearly Beloved through the end of June) are the occasional degrees to which it wallows in its own—and not its characters'—poor taste.

Following the sudden death of a family patriarch (accompanied by the "wah-wah-wah-wahhhh" of comic, muted trumpets and a giggling clarinet), an extended family of low-class, lower-education, poor rural white folk come together to grieve. That is, when they're not pursuing their own individual agendas involving radical evangelism, eternal nitpicking, the public airing of dirty laundry and drinking on the sly. Still, the crew generally tries to do the right thing by the deceased and the immediate family.

Straight from central casting comes hectoring religious zealot Aunt Marguerite (Frances Stanley) and her too-lean, no-'count biker boy, Royce (Jeffrey Nugent), the decidedly unsentimental widow Raynelle (Janis Coville) and the unctuous Reverend Hooker from the church uptown (Robert Harris). Same goes for the shrill—but "sensitive"—Suzanne (Leanne Norton-Heintz), a fainting harridan who blames her loser husband, Junior (played at first to a slow-burn crisp by Larry Evans), for, basically, everything. Actor Phil Crone is one of the few who gives his character—Ray-Bud, one of the sons of the deceased—some desperately needed dimension.

But playwrights David Bottrell and Jessie Jones occasionally turn so callous toward their characters that we wonder just how good-natured these fun and games really are. What do we make of the physical comic relief that's supposed to be provided by Delightful—a young girl in an orange jumpsuit whose autism is apparently so profound she has to wear a helmet at all times? Or the allegedly amusing tale of Ray-Bud's wife, Lucille (a solid Meg Dietrich), who had to carry a miscarriage through an emergency room in a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket?

Yes, that moment in the show was truly nauseating. And the lack of respect it demonstrated for the character—and the audience—was clear. It owed a lot more to, say, John Waters than to Beth Henley, Robert Harling or Fannie Flagg, writers all who have dealt with characters (as opposed to these comparative stick figures) with satire and sensitivity.

Still, the show recovered from the moment, as a group of good ol' girls pulled themselves—and everyone else—together through a family crisis. The audience wound up applauding strongly at the end.

But the road we took to get there left me thinking. This kind of low comedy focuses on its characters' poor taste and the bad choices they've made and keep on making. But when the bad taste on display was the playwrights' alone, the laughter evaporated into something more mean-spirited. Not the way we like to treat family, in short.

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