David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’ comedy Dearly Departed, now onstage at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, is assuredly one of those plays destined to be more of a crowd pleaser than a critics’ choice—although the subject matter and some of the humor may not please everyone in the crowd, either.
It all depends on your tolerance for outrageous behavior in the face of death. The Turpin family members around whom the action of Dearly Departed swirls were no doubt dysfunctional for years, but the sudden passing of family patriarch Bud opens the floodgates for all sorts of private emotions to go very public.
After all, Bud’s own long-suffering wife, Raynelle (Dee Selmore), refers to him as “mean” and “surly as a snake.” Bud’s sons, the hard-working Ray-Bud (Brian Boyd) and the down-on-his-luck Junior (Ian Fermy) try to maintain a semblance of mourning—not something that Pringles-potato-chip-downing daughter Delightful (Kourtney Paige) can be bothered to do.
As they all gather around for the funeral, led by a fire-breathing pastor (Michael Kinsey) who can’t find anything good to say about the deceased, the issues dividing the family come to the fore. The scripture-quoting Marguerite (Ariel Blue, subbing for WBTT artistic director Nate Jacobs on the night I attended the show) drives most of the others wild with her religious pronouncements. Ray-Bud’s wife, Lucille (Ashley Brooks), prone to multiple miscarriages, scurries around trying to make everyone happy, including sister-in-law Suzanne (Cindy De La Cruz), who’s just made a nasty discovery about husband Junior’s extracurricular activities. Marguerite’s shiftless son, Royce (Earley Dean), can’t even pretend to care about being out of work. And then there are the assorted family friends whose own problems add to the mix even as they try to honor the departed Bud.
The play, originally written with a Southern white family in mind, mostly works fine in terms of the switch to an African-American cast of characters. Selmore’s Raynelle maintains her dignity throughout despite the wilder actions of her relatives, keeping the play grounded in some kind of reality. And De La Cruz has good energy as the betrayed Suzanne, flinging herself into the part with abandon. Dean gets off a few good pops at mother Marguerite.
But, directed to the nth degree by Harry Bryce, the over-the-top deeds and dialogue can wear a watcher down. And while everyone onstage is working hard (perhaps too hard) to deliver the laughs, the only scene that really made me laugh out loud was a well-scripted and perfectly timed bit featuring Lonnetta Gaines as the martyr wife of a man (Patric Robinson) with a catalog of ailments. I won’t spoil the scene for anyone by giving up the punch line, but it’s a classic.
Other than that, your enjoyment of Dearly Departed will just depend on how funny you find exaggerated, stereotypical characters and performances. That level differs for every viewer.
Dearly Departed continues through May 27 at WBTT; for tickets call 366-1505 or click here.