All in the Family

If you're tired of being bombarded by wall-to-wall news coverage of heinous crimes, tragic accidents and inane controversies, or of slogging through the nightly prime-time lineup of hospital dramas (in which half of the characters die), crime movies (in which the characters commit the acts that send their victims to hospital dramas) and comedies about hip, though vapid, urban dwellers (whom no one really cares about anyway), it might be time to trade in your remote control for a couple of hours' worth of old-fashioned theatrical escapism.

True, most of the characters in Dearly Departed behave as though they belong in a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, and some of their collective yokeling is reminiscent of Hee Haw. And heaven knows that David Bottrell and Jessie Jones's off-Broadway hit, which skewers death, family dysfunction and a host of Southern small-town taboos, shamelessly borrows from the same topical larder that supplies grist for television newsmagazines. But even though the Avenue Theater's production occasionally drifts into the realm of boob-tube turgidity, the stalwart performers (many of whom appeared in the Avenue's 1992 staging of the work) manage to earn bushels of laughter for their down-home, over-the-top antics.

A split second after Raynelle (Judy Phelan-Hill) reads a letter aloud, her "mean and surly" husband, Bud (Eric Weber), drops dead on the kitchen table, setting in motion a gathering of relatives who descend on the Turpin household for the obligatory funeral and wake. There's the Bible-toting Aunt Marguerite (played in drag by Bill Berry), a droopy-breasted busybody who's fond of bellowing gospel hymns like "Blessed Assurance." S/he's constantly tethered to her daughter, Delightful (Cini Bow), a plus-sized, pink-clad woman who, when she isn't belching, wiping her nostrils with a wad of gum or stuffing her mouth with post-funeral snacks like "Macaroni and Ham Loaf Surprize With Cheeze," utters only two one-word lines: "Beans" and "Bye."

In due time, the ranks of the grieving are swelled by the arrival of Junior (Weber), Bud's ne'er-do-well son who threw away all his money on a machine that cleans parking lots, and his unhappy wife, Suzanne (Pam Clifton). Although she fell in love with Junior because he once bought her a Grape Slush, Suzanne has had trouble holding her man ever since, a fact that she confirms to the rest of the clan by screeching, "I know what it's like to see something you love shrivel up and die!" Naturally, her shouted proclamation doesn't sit too well with Raynelle and Bud's eldest son, Ray-Bud (Tupper Cullum), whose drawling, doll-like wife, Lucille (Amie MacKenzie), suffered a miscarriage that Ray-Bud graphically recounts in a subsequent heart-to-heart scene with Junior.

Just when it seems like the memorial service might go off without many more hitches, the wheelchair-bound Norval (Mike Kilman) and his wife, Veda (Denise Perry), arrive. Clutching a giant oxygen bottle as if it were the last available life jacket on a burning cruise ship, Norval exudes the sort of charisma that might be expected from someone with a woodblock under both wheels. In addition to complementing Perry's recitation of Norval's litany of ailments ("And next month we're getting rid of that prostate, aren't we, Norval?"), Kilman's cadaveresque portrayal proves the perfect setup for Raynelle's droll remark to Veda, "You're just so lucky to have him." By the time the trashy Nadine (Bow) publicly breastfeeds one of the many illegitimate children she's named after pop stars, and Juanita (Perry) demonstrates why she's the quintessential Yam Queen, the stage is set for Reverend Hooker (Kilman) to bring down the house by suffering a sudden gas attack in the middle of the eulogy--fittingly accompanied by Delightful's slurping of a Dilly Bar.

Director John Ashton's freewheeling approach results in plenty of hilarity, especially since the actors are perfectly adept at taking advantage of every comic possibility. That said, it's hard to believe that any of these grotesque caricatures would have anything resembling a contemplative side. Which means that a couple of more sober scenes, such as one in which the characters talk about life being akin to a circle, seem out of place here. Still, led by Bow, Berry, MacKenzie, Kilman and Phelan-Hill, the actors elicit gales of laughter throughout. As far as addressing more pressing problems, it might be best to heed the reverend's pithy remarks to his radio fans (underscored, of course, by a robed choir called "The Joy of Life Singers"): "If you think sometimes, 'There's just no answer,' you may be right."


Dearly Departed, through September 25 at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925.