Theatre Review: ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players

The cast of ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players.

With a dull thud, Mr. Turpin drops dead on the kitchen floor.

According to his wife, Raynelle, the man had all but stopped breathing for the better part of their thirty-plus year marriage.  Besides, he was a mean and surly man.

. . .off-the-map funny.

So goes “Dearly Departed,” the current comedy by Aurora Players running now at the Roycroft Pavilion.

Soon after the not-breathing patriarch of the Turpin family bites the linoleum, his Southern relatives set about planning his memorial services.  To say the man’s brood is going to struggle pulling together the resources to do it is an understatement.

Enter his sister, Marguerite, aptly played by Lillian Edmunds, whose performance as the scripture-quoting, elderly southern lady whose major disappointment in life is just about everybody.   But her son, Royce, played by Thomas Videon, is her biggest disappointment. Royce is unemployed and has no intention of being employed. He’s a sort of couch philosopher who’s unaffected by life, let alone his uncle’s demise.  Edmunds and Videon address their characters with southern drawls, but skillfully keep them in check. The longer you listen, the more natural they become so as to disappear.

But there’s more.  Set changes come fast and efficiently.  Scenes change from kitchens to living rooms to back yards to funeral parlors, to the front seat of cars over the course of the play.  But the action is well paced and holds interest seamlessly. The sets are mid-sparse, with just enough to make sure we know where the action is taking place.  David Hall’s hand as stage manager and set designer is well played and gives room for the characters to grow on us.

And they do grow.  The prodigal son, Ray-Bud and his wife, Lucille — played by Daniel Keith Barone and Madeline E. Allard — ground the characters as the couple who mostly seem to have their act together.  Being the eldest son of the deceased, Ray-Bud is also the responsible one, and Lucille has enough sense for both of them even when he does not. Together Ray-Bud and Lucille are the two characters who, by default, are holding the family on track, emotionally if not financially.   As a result, their own closely-held sorrows and disappointments go almost unnoticed by the rest of the family. They’re not quite the complainers the rest of their family is. Barone and Allard melt into their roles and ground the plot with them.

That’s because the rest of the characters have troubles of their own, and they have no trouble putting them on display.  Younger brother Junior, played by Joshua Leary, is the not-so-smart, broke, bad decision-making southern boy. Suzanne, played by Brooke Bartell Goergen, is his wife, whose one mistake in life is that she married Junior.  She knows this, and speaks of it often. But the two of them have hearts on their sleeves, and Suzanne does what she can to get a rise out of Junior, or get done with him. She’s a woman who loves her man, and has no trouble giving fair warning that he’s close to losing it.   And Bartell Goergen’s performance of Suzanne lets us know she’ll do well regardles ofs the outcome, no matter the stage and role. She plays this strong and convincing, with sharp admonitions in early scenes and then breaching wonderfully unexpected emotions later.

The supporting cast, likewise, give stellar moments.  Parker Reed as Reverend Hooker is hugely entertaining in a role that is both televangelist and solemn reverence to the Lord.  In the final scene of Act One, Parker puts on a sermon that is hilariously funny as a man of the cloth whose life is just as mired in frustration as his flock’s.  His sermon is backed up by a chorus of minor supporting actors that play multiple roles – most notably Christopher Rimes who does double duty as the hysterical and terminally-ill Norval, and as Ray-Bud’s boss.   And Shelby Ebeling, who offers up a precisely high-quality performance of her lowly noble character, Juanita — a small but distinguishing role, in her first regular-season production for Aurora Players.

“Dearly Departed” could have easily slipped into an exercise in southern, stereotypical caricature.  It may seem to flirt with it, at times, as characters such as these may appear familiar at first glance.  Adding to that, this is comedy, making it a possibly greasier descent.

But audiences can take heart — the wittiness, amusement and poignancy coming from the script and these characters make it a solidly entertaining trip into southern humor, mixed with a tinge of tragedy and heart that truly has no geographic locale.   The southern spin makes it and even more worthwhile production, and it’s also off-the-map funny.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“Dearly Departed” directed by Chris Fire runs through June 16, 2019 and is presented at the Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.