Dead Man Laughing

On the surface, Beth Henley's The Wake of Jamey Foster looks like a typical American dysfunctional-family play. In fact, before Act One is twenty minutes old, we've become acquainted with an undiscovered ectomorphic genius who makes a living cashing in beverage bottles; an insufferable financial type grown newly contemptuous of his dirt-poor origins; and a grieving housewife whose aspiring-writer husband recently suffered death at the hooves of an enraged cow. But by the time we reach the halfway point of HorseChart Theatre Company's mildly entertaining production, it becomes clear that Henley's displaced dreamers have more on their minds than recounting familial horrors, indignities and calamities. Living a full life in spite of one's circumstances--and in some cases, because of them--ultimately triumphs as the Southern Gothic playwright's most significant theme.

On stage at the Acoma Center under the capable if sometimes haphazard direction of Matt Saunders, the comedy-drama boasts dialogue rich with offbeat humor, moments of tears-through-laughter poeticism and portrayals that reach their high point in well-written group scenes. Although a few episodes lack depth and texture, the two-hour-plus production conveys most of Henley's quirky musings about life's unavoidable compromises.

As the play begins, we meet Leon Darnell (Brandon Moynihan), an unconsciously loud, gangly young man who appears to be unofficially in charge of the late Jamey Foster's funeral arrangements. At least that's what he seems to be doing as he bellows and blares his way about the drafty, two-story dwelling where he grew up with Jamey's widow, Marshael Foster (Amie MacKenzie), and their ne'er-do-well sister, Collard Darnell (Amy Doe). In the midst of the household's chaos, Leon's snooty brother-in-law, Wayne Foster (Brett Aune), tries in vain to impose some much-needed decorum: "Must I do everything myself?" seems to be his unspoken mantra. He's joined in his efforts by his wife, Katty Foster (Jennifer Bledsoe), whose down-home charm and hoity-toity pretension alternately enchants and irritates. Later we're introduced to Leon's love interest, Pixrose Wilson (Kimberly Payetta), and Marshael's would-be suitor, Brocker Slade (Michael Katt). As the play unfolds, both of these outsiders offer dead-on observations about the Darnell-Foster clan's macabre behavior. Most of all, though, Pixrose and Brocker succeed in clarifying one essential point: Try as everyone might, no one (except perhaps Marshael) has a good thing to say about the person whose living-room wake they've taken great pains to attend.

Saunders elicits several enjoyable portrayals from his talented performers. Bledsoe invests her portrait of the repressed Katty with a yearning for approval and a penchant for dark humor that's both gut-wrenching and hilarious. When Katty confronts her philandering mate and then switches gears to light into him about his deceased mother's appalling choice of clothing (before stomping up the stairs, she plaintively argues that everyone except "that stupid, fat, old redneck" knows obese people ought not to wear dark outfits with large vertical stripes), the versatile actress earns both well-deserved laughter and empathy. She's nicely complemented by Payetta's touching portrait of the emotionally damaged Pixrose and MacKenzie's sensitive rendering of the conflicted Marshael. Katt makes the most of his episodes of homespun philosophy, while Aune and Moynihan sometimes cross over into the realm of caricature in order to convey their characters' extreme behavior. And even though Doe displays an unfortunate tendency to rush and under-project some of her lines, she nonetheless delivers an appropriately down-and-dirty portrayal of the family's blackest sheep.

Most intriguing of all, though, are those scenes in which the male and female ensembles gather respectively in the kitchen and upstairs bedroom (the functional if sprawling set was designed by Jeffrey Turton) to hash out the meaning of life in typical Henley fashion. Shortly after Brocker blithely remarks that his hog herd spontaneously combusted due to a congenital deficiency in the porcine digestive tract, Marshael poignantly reveals that her deteriorating relationship with Jamey mirrored each of his professional failures: "The house and the children became mine, and something else was his," she says softly of their last days together. Likewise, as Wayne puffs himself up to pompously declare to his buddies, "People get deader and deader each day of their lives," Katty lets down her guard to tell her girlfriends that she hates the person she has to become in order to please the blustery banker.

Henley's peculiar, almost Chekhovian mixture of pathos and humor has never been adequately communicated in film versions of her plays, even when she wrote the screenplay for her Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Crimes of the Heart. As executed by Saunders and company, it occasionally finds full expression here.

The Wake of Jamey Foster, presented by HorseChart Theatre Company, through January 23 at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-458-0755.

 
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