Crimes of the Hearty Har Hars

It's a crapshoot when a domestic comedy begins with an old Southern woman's reading her husband a letter from her sister about so-and-so's scandalous defection to the Nazarenes; about a neighbor's not being so uppity once a nephew got the electric chair; about her son's falling into a real bad crowd since he got laid off from the sewage plant. It's dicey when said husband is sitting not rapt but dead. When we know this, but the occupied wife doesn't. When, to end the scene, she says, as he literally keels over at her nudge, "Are you feeling all right?"

Such go-for-broke antics either pay off or go belly up. They seem either rich and acute or cheap and easy. Marking The Actors Workshop's 50th production, David Bottrell and Jessie Jones' Dearly Departed is a bust, a lame attempt at capturing the down-home hilarity of an eccentric Southern clan, but it's nowhere near as lively or realized as the likes of Steel Magnolias, Greater Tuna or Crimes of the Heart.

About an outrageous family's coming together to act out more than to grieve, the cornball play relies on caricatures, not characterizations, on stick figures so exaggerated they surpass stock and become cliche. Among them are Raynelle, a blunt widow whose idea of mourning is to inscribe "mean and surly" on her husbandes tombstone; Ray-Bud, her good-ol'-boy penny-pinching son, damned if he's gonna get milked by the mortician; Junior, his inept little brother, who's having a pathetic affair; Junior's shrill belle wife, Suzanne, who grouses about having to slave away at her department-store job making the wax fruit section look real nice; Raynelle's obese daughter, Delightful, who doesn't say much because her mouth is always full; Marguerite, Raynelle's Christian sister-in-law bent on educating the heathens, foremost among them Royce, her unemployed son planning to marry any woman with kids so he can collect welfare; and the Reverend Hooker, a pontificating man of God with a talk show and uninspirational backup singers. What comes out of these types' mouths is as fresh as the corn dogs they put in them.

Likewise, the play's action is less amusing than predictable, stale slices-of-life stemming from moldy playwrighting. From embarrassing scenes in public to personal goodbyes to the corpse: theatrical laziness ad infinitum.

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Director Karen Douglas opts not to rely on sets to concretize the Bible Belt (in)hospitalities, or on lighting to enhance the moods of this series of blackout scenes. The resulting undue burden upon the cast is increased by suspect blocking. The pacing drags, especially in methodical Act Two, and hinders the comic verve of Southern-style mayhem.

That the production occasionally overcomes these hindrances is due principally to some confederate acting. Kelly Campbell, as Ray-Bud, captures the timing and inflection of a blue-collar husband not saying much, not hiding much. Carole Orsak is comically sympathetic as Suzanne; behind her whininess, there's a human appeal. Quint Bishop triples up knee-slappingly as the put-out preacher, a mumbling old geezer with an oxygen tank in tow, and a talkative, beer-swigging mourner.

The others waver, as do their accents. Pauline Hecht is miscast as Raynelle, more a beneficent librarian than a no-nonsense widow. Steve Smith performs Royce from the outside in, investing too much faith in the audience's associations with a goatee. Nancy Moore's Marguerite is incomplete, the bulldozing zealot apparent but not her missionary good intentions. Martha Campbell, Douglas Matens and Genie Maxwell are committed but functional. It speaks volumes that in this Actors Workshop production, the most grounded performer is Eileen T. Colleton's Delightful, a big woman in little-girl dress who has all of three words to say.

-- Peter Szatmary

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