Guest Reviewer: Fiona Macleod, an educator from Scotland and a freelance theatre director, is retired Theatre Program Director at Huntingdon College and a graduate of both Auburn and Alabama.
At the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, the audience might have been confused by the black enclosed space with shiny black panels and a dominant white circle on the black floor. Where was the set: the furniture, fireplaces, stairs, doors, windows; the homey country environment? -- The answer was revealed in the first few scenes of Dearly Departed by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, when an adroitly trained crew silently moved designer Mark Parsley's panels and simple black & white furniture, creating the numerous locations that this complex play needed, all beautifully choreographed to "good ol' country music" and keeping the upbeat tempo of the play intact during the scene changes...a visually stimulating sensory experience guided by director Denise Gabriel who masterfully moved the action.
The play focuses on events following the sudden on-stage death of Bud Turpin [Roy Royster]. Could it depict the "solemn thematic implications" of death, infidelity, sibling rivalry, eating disorders, miscarriage, alcoholism, marital strife, and other serious moral issues; or could it be viewed as the highly charged farce that it is? -- Definitely the latter.
Appropriately set in the heat of summer in the deep, rural South, the opening scene caught the audience off-guard. Turpin, the patriarch of a blue-collar family, hid behind his newspaper while his wife Raynelle [Beth Egan] read a letter to him from his sister Marguerite [Janet Wilkerson], who berated her brother for choosing television over church, and threatened to visit him to steer him back to what she sees as the right path; and that's when Bud dropped dead.
Ms. Egan, previously seen in Christmas Letters, a stoic presence with a droll delivery, was a mainstay in this production; she was supported by an able cast of Red Door veterans and some newcomers to Union Springs.
Raynelle & Bud's older son Ray-Bud [Jonathan Johnson], a hard-working, frugal and responsible man, feared that as well as helping his sensible wife Lucille [Elizabeth Roughton] cope with repeated miscarriages, he will be stuck with the entire funeral bill. His younger brother, a wannabe business tycoon named Junior [Mark Moore], has an obsessive wife, Suzanne [Leigh Moorer], who is convinced he was having an affair after discovering an earring that did not belong to her. -- The feuding brothers were convincingly played without resorting to the maudlin or cheap gags, and had a scene that brought them closer together courtesy of a little Jim Beam. -- Their wives were clearly balanced opposites, Ms. Roughton very logical, and Ms. Moorer over-the-top, bringing the most highly charged moments in the show.
Bud & Raynelle's daughter Delightful's [Kirstyn Hall] obsessive eating disorder was "consuming", while Marguerite's Bible-toting tirades and hymns attempting to rouse her good-for-nothing son Royce [Travin Wilkerson] from his hungover slumber were played by both actors very well.
The minister was entertainingly played by William Harper as he practiced his effusive oratory. Asked what kind of man her husband was, Raynelle replied with calm certainty: "Mean and surly", the words she wanted on Bud's tombstone; and Mr. Harper's physical reactions were excellent.
Most memorable was a riotous funeral home exchange between Norval [Roy Royster], a decrepit old coot suffering the ministrations of his elderly wife Veda [Lillie Hall]. Add to this a highly caricatured sweeter than sweet potato pie and as poisonous as a snake Junior Leaguer named Juanita [Mary Malloy], and a delightful cameo appearance by Alicia Atkins as a very fecund character named Nadine, clutching a baby doll representing her latest "delivery" [the others she named Zsa Zsa, Oprah, and Geraldo], and Beau Shirley as Clyde, a friend of the family who lent an easy authenticity to the role, with some unexpected toilet humor from Mr. Harper's minister. -- Silent until the end, when asked her opinion, Ms. Hall's Delightful's eulogy to her father is a cheery "Wouldn't want to be you. Bye!"
Thanks to director Ms. Gabriel's attention to physical coaching of the actors -- a strength she brings through her expertise in movement & acting -- each character was distinct and brought an integrity and sensitivity to their performances. Her ability to combine honest, sensitive, and touching moments throughout this ribald Southern comedy provoked almost constant laughter [that, alas, prevented many lines from being heard], and captured both the pith and frivolity of Dearly Departed.