Finding the 'fun' in funerals

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By Doug Deuchler

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It may not be everyone's cup of tea but I laughed my head off at the new production of the 1992 comedy Dearly Departed at Circle Theatre. There's not really a true storyline but rather an assortment of hilarious character sketches built around a lot of goofy down-home folks who are gathering for a family funeral.

You may remember an '80s sitcom called Mama's Family with Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence. Here the well-delivered laughs, similarly at the expense of a gaggle of rustic misfit relatives, are just as fast-paced. But even though we howl at the Bible Belt stereotypes and the quirky family's trailer park antics, this screwy brood often manages to touch us, too. Director Kevin Wiczer and his ensemble cast of 11 have mounted a delightfully absurd evening of side-splitting escapism.

The two playwrights, David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, were seasoned television writers and this now 20-year-old comedy plays like a cluster of short, rapid-fire sitcom episodes.

The cast does a riotous job, with several of the actors skillfully playing multiple roles.

Nancy Greco faces front, seated stage center at an organ, playing non-stop snatches of hymns as the audience files into the theater before the opening curtain. She's a funeral parlor organist (complete with bad wig and glasses-on-a-chain). Greco's stern comic expressions are priceless.

Bud, the "mean and surly" patriarch of a dysfunctional but essentially lovable family of southern eccentrics, collapses face-down at the breakfast table in the first scene, dead of a stroke, while his wife Raynelle (Anita Hoffman) is reading aloud a letter from his sister Marguerite.

The pious sister had warned her unchurched sibling that he might soon "be roasting on the edge of a pitchfork." Widow Raynelle wants to put "Mean and Surly" on her husband's tombstone.

The plot is essentially a series of close-ups on the friction that occurs as family and friends come together to lay old Bud to rest.

Oak Park theater veteran Patti Roeder has never been funnier as the dearly departed's holier-than-thou sister, Marguerite, a Bible-thumping church lady with one lazy renegade son, Royce, who is "between jobs" and another son in prison. She's bitter about one of the judges who disqualified her home-made jars of jam in a recent competition, yet she's smugly uplifted that the woman's nephew just went to the electric chair.

Pious Marguerite, singing the hymn, "Blessed Assurance," over the phone to get her hangover-challenged son out of bed, forces the hard-living Royce (K. Curtis Becht) to take her to her brother's funeral. Royce loves tormenting his mother with his plan of marrying some woman when his unemployment runs out and having a bunch of kids so he can go on welfare. Their battle over who controls the car radio en route to the services is a riot.

Bud and Raynelle's "surprise" midlife daughter Delightful (Erin Daly), now grown, guzzles junk food non-stop and is never involved, never shows emotion or says a word. She's a simple-minded, sullen girl but as long as she's eating she's happy.

Ray-Bud (Jeff Segall), deceased Bud's firstborn and the most responsible of the family, juggles a drinking problem while worrying over the mounting funeral bills. His wife, Lucille (Audrey Flegel), who has had a number of miscarriages in an incredibly prolific family, struggles to hold everyone together.

Rop Popp plays Junior, the failure of the family, who lost all his money investing in a "surefire" machine resembling a Zamboni that was supposed to clean parking lots.

Junior's over-the-top drama queen wife, Suzanne (Michelle Annette), never lets her husband forget how disappointed in him she is for his flopped business venture. Suzanne is ever shrieking at their unruly children when she isn't whining about her life's disappointments. She's also convinced Junior is sleeping around.

Wil Nifong is a hoot as a fire-and-brimstone preacher who suffers a bout of, shall we say, intestinal problems at the time of the eulogy.

The widow of the departed, Raynelle, is the only straight role. Hoffman is touching when she reflects back on her long, rather lifeless marriage.

The simple, versatile set is designed by Chad Bianachi. Lauren Filip is the stage manager.

There is one 10-minute intermission. The show runs about two hours.

"Dearly Departed" might make some uncomfortable as it takes edgy potshots at everything from miscarriage to evangelist radio programs, alcoholism to infidelity. But despite all the raucous laughs and mockery, there's a surprising amount of heart, too.

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