You might be at a Texas funeral if acceptable mourning attire includes cowboy boots and rhinestones. That the guy in the box at the front of the church is named “Bud” might just be another tip-off.
So it is in Dearly Departed, David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’s 1991 comedy about losing a mean, surly old daddy in our general neck of the woods — and the family hijinks that inevitably ensue.
The Cameo Theatre’s production, directed by Vivienne Elborne, opens on the elderly Bud Turpin (Gregory Hinojosa) in his pajama pants, robe, and Cowboys baseball cap. He sits completely still, silently impudent at a modest kitchen table as his wife, Raynelle (Catherine Babbitt), reads aloud one pew-jumper of a letter from his sister. Closing the note — chockfull of distinctly Bible-Belt-y, Bud-shaming contents — Raynelle tips her gaze at her husband and inquires with a kind of “amen” in her drawl: “Well, what do you think of that, Bud?”
Bud keels over on the spot.
Sometimes the impromptu family reunion a death demands is more unwelcome than the Grim Reaper himself — especially when the departed was not so dear at all. If the old man hadn’t done croaked, these Turpin kinfolk could’ve kept a comfortable distance. The pious, blue-haired, apron-sporting sister of the deceased, Marguerite (Amy LaPresto), would never have had to call up her worthless, couch-crashing son, Royce (Brad Adams), at 7 a.m. to rouse him with a twangy, no-holds-barred rendition of “Blessed Assurance,” because she needed a ride to the service. And Bud’s self-loathing son, Junior, a failed inventor of sorts, wouldn’t be trucking his wife and brats over for the big occasion, knowing he’ll have to face up to debt and unemployment. All the while, his other half, Suzanne, a monster with Carol Brady’s haircut, emasculates him with insults and swats at their three children.
Funeral arrangements aren’t any cakewalk, either. At his own modest kitchen table, Bud and Raynelle’s other son — appropriately named Ray-Bud (also Hinojosa) — fiddles with the bill of his father’s baseball cap while his wife, Lucille, struggles to plan the memorial service over the phone. Meanwhile, Raynelle, who closed the muffin shop on that bastard Bud decades before his passing, has frustratingly little assistance to offer the local reverend (Kevin Murray) tasked with giving Bud’s eulogy. (Reverend Hooker — first name “Beverly” — will take that aggravation out on his radio show, “Midnight Sinner.”)
Fortunately, Dearly Departed generally stays hemmed into the territory of hootin’, hollerin’ hilarity, much to the credit of Bud’s only daughter, Delightful (Teresa Bishop, perfect), a gluttonous near-mute who has clearly opted out of the gossiping, glittering, modern-day Southern-belle lifestyle. There are serious moments, too — the fam has to make peace, after all — but what little wisdom the show offers is the most appropriate kind: Who doesn’t want deep, coffin-side insights on life and death from a guy swilling a tallboy? What’s it all about? “We’re not meant to know.”
Poking fun at vaguely backward Texas folk is a little like making fun of your kid sister — it’s fine if the teaser’s part of the family, the rest are cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Bottrell and Jones hail from Kentucky, so maybe a light cuff on the head will do. Like anyone writing about a specific region, their best moments are their most precise. Tiny, demented details, as when Marguerite whips out a disposable camera to photograph the corpse, are comical and revealing because that stuff really goes down in the Bible Belt. I’ve seen it.
As the performance winds down, though, the funny bone tickles less frequently. A mid-eulogy indigestion gag isn’t saved by Murray’s Donald Sutherland-ish charisma. LaPresto’s preaching ceases to thrill. Vaguely homophobic jokes fall flat. It could be a purposeful change in tone; it could be that the actors and director just handled some of the broader humor with less care. Or maybe it’s the same kind of fatigue a body gets by the end of a Jeff Foxworthy stand-up routine: Oh, they might be rednecks? You don’t say. •