Aurora Fox's Dearly Departed has enough laughs to wake the dead

Pretty much everyone in this wambling, good-natured shaggy dog of a comedy is older than the character he or she portrays: Lazy layabout Royce appears about the same age as his mother, Marguerite; Ray Bud Jr. doesn't look much younger than his supposed mother, Raynelle; and actress Pam Clifton thanks the director in the program notes for "having the balls to cast her as a 35-year-old." This is not a bad thing, however; it's all part of the joke. John Ashton first staged Dearly Departed in 1992 and remounted it in 1999 and 2002, each time with almost exactly the same cast. You can tell that everyone was delighted to get together yet again — a couple of actors traveled from other states to do so — and the result is a bellyful of laughs.

As Raynelle reads her husband, Bud, a letter from his rigidly religious sister, Marguerite, he drops dead of a stroke, face-down on the table. The rest of the action involves the family's reactions and the memorial service and burial they arrange. Silent daughter Delightful simply stuffs her face with chips and chewing gum. Bud's sister Marguerite hectors Royce about his future — even though he tells her he has it all figured out: When his unemployment runs out, he'll find a woman to marry, have kids and go on welfare. Son Ray Bud Jr. and his wife, Lucille, the sanest members of the clan, take on most of the planning and hand out corndogs. A second son, Junior, travels from who-knows-where with his unruly kids and whiny, over-the-top wife, Suzanne, who can't forgive him for the failure of his parking lot cleaning business. Meanwhile, he fantasizes about ways to kill her. The plot isn't particularly tight, though it all hangs together, and things move at a leisurely — though never boring — pace, with each comic moment given time to unfurl and hilarious little vignettes popping up here and there.

It was pure inspiration to have self-righteous Marguerite played by a man in the first place, and Bill Berry reprises the role to perfection, never camping it up, always moving with slow, wounded dignity and keeping his voice petulantly even — except when he erupts in rage. The white socks he wears over lumpy ankles in the early scenes, followed by knee-highs for the funeral, deserve serious contemplation in and of themselves. Clifton makes for a wonderfully loud and annoying Suzanne, with everything about her threatening to spill out of control at any moment, from her hair to her emotions. Tupper Cullum and Dana Miller provide smooth contrast as Ray Bud Jr. and Lucille (the role of Lucille alternates between Miller and Amie MacKenzie). Judy Phelan-Hill's Raynelle is as funny as she's supposed to be ("Mean and surly," she responds, when asked what Bud's tombstone should read), but also moving in the final scenes as she begins to reflect on the meaning of a longtime marriage. As Royce and Junior, respectively, Michael Katt and Eric Weber serve as sadly humorous portraits of useless Southern manhood.

Some of the funniest stuff happens around the edges of the plot. Steve Sealy is a hoot in several smaller roles, most particularly as the wheelchair-bound Norval, ceaselessly tended by his wife and possessed of every infirmity known to man. Luann Buckstein's Delightful is entertaining, but she really comes into her own as the insanely fertile Nadine, who has named all her children after such stars as Oprah and Lady Gaga. And Pam Vanderpool offers up a meatloaf-mac-and-cheese casserole to the funeral guests — and to us, the audience — with the hilariously practiced vapidity of a game-show hostess.

There's beer and wine to be had, and live bluegrass music after the show. All in all, it's hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend an evening — or depart this life.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman