DOWAGIAC, Mich. — “Mean and surly.” Those are the words Raynelle Turpin wants on her husband’s tombstone.
“And when the reverend, Rev. Hooker, tries to come up with something nice to say about him for the eulogy, she says, ‘That’s because you didn’t know him,’” Larry Nielsen says.
The death and funeral of family patriarch Bud Turpin (Frank Quirk), may seem like an unlikely subject for a comedy, but Nielsen, who directs The Beckwith Theatre Company’s production of “Dearly Departed,” which opens Friday for a six-date, two-weekend run at its theater, says the 1991 play by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones is filled with the kind of familial dysfunction that makes for one humorous comedy.
“You’re going to come and you are going to laugh,” Nielsen says. “It’s one of those types of plays. There’s a good message about what it means to be family even in the chaos and dysfunction that family’s go through.”
Nielsen, a board member and frequent director for Twin City Players in St. Joseph, Mich., says this is the first time he has directed a show for Beckwith.
“I’ve seen some plays there, and I really like their space,” he says. “It’s intimate, and I like that kind of theater. So when they asked me if I would consider directing for their season, I said ‘Sure.’”
“Dearly Departed,” which opens Beckwith’s 2018-19 season, is set “somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line,” and is quick to play up Southern stereotypes, although, Nielsen says, the play could just as easily be set in Michigan or elsewhere in the Midwest.
“You are going to know these people,” he says. “You are going to recognize some of them in your own family.”
The character-driven story is a simple one. When Bud Turpin dies from a heart attack at the breakfast table, his departure throws his already dysfunctional family into further disarray.
His death may bring the family together physically, but the rest of the show is spent watching the antics and complications that arise trying to get Bud into the grave.
While everyone else wants to find some virtue in the deceased, the none-too-grieving widow, Raynelle Turpin (Sarah Simmons), seems to be the only one who recognizes him for who he really was, hence her choice of words for his tombstone.
Raynelle has three sons, one of whom is in prison. Another, Junior (David Prouty), has lost all his money trying to start a business washing parking lots. His wife, Suzanne (Denise Miller), will never let him forget how his failures have ruined her life.
The other son, Ray-Bud (Jeff Starkey), may be the closest one to being a responsible adult in this story. He is the only one with a job and knows he’s going to be stuck with the funeral bill. He’s kept sane throughout the show by his wife, Lucille (Andrea Creasbaum).
There’s also Raynelle’s late-born daughter, Delightful (Texas Brooks), who is barely articulate and bent on stuffing her face with whatever she can get her hands on; and Bud’s sister, Marguerite (Holly Brooks), a Bible-toting widow who sings hymns over the phone to her son, Royce (Jacob Holmes), hoping to redeem his wayward soul.
Connie Weaver, A.K. Amin, Pennie Hammond and Jim Richards round out the cast.
Of course, eventually, even Raynelle softens her attitude toward her late husband, and in the end, the family does its best to honor Bud’s memory.
“It’s a fun show. It’s nothing deep, but it’s a comedy that’s a lot of fun and it’s been a good experience,” Nielsen says. “What’s been great is that I have a cast from everywhere – Niles, South Bend, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, St. Joseph, Berrien Springs. I have some TCP regulars, some Beckwith regulars and some brand new people who have never been on stage before, and we’re all having a good time. I think the audience will as well.”
If you go
What: The Beckwith Theatre Company presents "Dearly Departed"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and April 13-14; and 2 p.m. Sunday and April 14
Where: The Beckwith Theatre, 100 New York Ave., Dowagiac, Mich.
How much: $15
Contact: 269-782-7653 or www.beckwiththeatre.com