Dearly Departed is DOA

Something hilarious happens within the first few minutes of Chyro Arts' Dearly Departed: A woman, played by Jacqueline Gaston, reads a wickedly amusing letter to her husband, who suddenly falls over in a dead heap just after she finishes. It's a moment that's shocking and witty and holds a good deal of promise that what's about to follow will be comedic and inspiring and entertaining.

It's a promise that's never delivered on. This amusing bit remains, over the course of the next two hours, as the single noteworthy moment in a very long, profoundly uneventful comedy that's often overplayed and rarely very funny. Playwrights David Bottrell and Jessie Jones have strung together a repetitive series of scenes that mock Southerners, all of whom, one would guess from this silly mess, are boneheaded losers who live in trailer parks and drink too much moonshine. Dearly Departed is one long hillbilly joke wrapped around a short story about an old guy who dies and the underprivileged, under-educated family who come home to bury him. One of the sons is cheating on his wife, who's a harridan; another is a good ol' boy whose sister is an obese dimwit; the women are either tarty or Christ-obsessed or former Yam Queens with back-combed hairdos. These embarrassing archetypes (most of whom have the word "Bud" somewhere in their names) tromp around doing every hackneyed bit of backwoods business you'd expect, none of which endears them to their audience.

Something might have been made of this poached premise, but — despite some manful work on the part of Gaston and a couple of her castmates — the production is a wash, thanks to bloated overacting by most of the rest of the players. Director Michael Peck, whose notes in the playbill suggest he knows something about hicks and family dynamics, appears to have directed his cast to overplay every moment. The result is a stage overrun with characters straight out of a silly sitcom; people who mumble stupidities, then make goofy faces to signal to us that what they've just said is funny. All this mugging makes an already stale premise seem overripe, and rips off both what's good about the writing and what the actors might have made of it.

Some of the cast manages to overcome all this nonsense. Patty Stephens gives the most consistent (and most consistently amusing) performance as a Bible-thumping visiting aunt, and her scenes with young Steve Erek, who joyfully plays her back-talking, miscreant son, illuminate this comedy's more dreary corners. As the family matriarch, Gaston brings some subtlety to a sketchy role, although I'm sad to say that she fluffed so many of her lines the night I saw the show that I left feeling I'd missed something. I'm still trying to figure out what her curtain speech to her dead husband was supposed to be about. Certainly the authors, after laboring so endlessly to insult so many Southerners, couldn't have meant for the lead character to mumble something about "that other thing," then wander offstage.

Hillbillies are apparently the last remaining minority that one can still string up with trite clichés, but plays like Dearly Departed will undoubtedly put an end to that sort of inequity. Meanwhile, there's no resting in peace for Southerners or anyone who thinks of them as something other than brain-dead.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela