(As always, this review probably contains more than a few spoilers – read at your own risk, or go see the show first and then come back to see if you agree with my assessment! The sections in green give an overview of the show without giving too much away, and the rest is where the spoilers live. Enjoy!)
The Turpin family, like any other family, has its share of problems, not the least of which is that patriarch Bud Turpin has dropped dead over the morning paper. Bud’s abrupt departure in the first scene sets off a chains of events that will bring scattered relations together, reveal family secrets, and keep the audience filled with corndogs, Dilly Bars, and laughter.
Co-directors Pat and Lana DeMars worked to find well-known figures in the community to play the part of Bud Turpin. I attended Friday’s performance where the “lucky stiff” was Terry Dullum of WDAZ; other notable guest stars include GF Mayor Mike Brown and EGF Mayor Lynn Stauss, Eliot Glassheim, and UND President Robert Kelley. An extra detail I found amusing was that the programs for each performance are wrapped in a special faux funeral program bearing the picture of the guest star for that performance as well as information about the Historic Norman Funeral Home, who sponsored the run of this show.
Once Bud makes his unceremonious exit, the Turpin family begins to gather around widow Raynelle (Theresa Knox) whose memories of her husband are generally less than pleasant. Bud’s Bible-thumping sister Marguerite (Kjerstine Trooien) spends more time issuing orders than offering comfort, much to the chagrin of her good-for-nothing layabout of a son, Royce (Jacob Thomas). Bud and Raynelle’s three children, Ray Bud (Jared Kinney), Bud Jr. (Gabe Figueroa), and Delightful (Kelsey Misialek) are often too busy getting into fist fights and looking for snacks to focus on the funeral arrangements, and so these responsibilities fall to Ray Bud’s wife Lucille (Houston Scharmer), who also has her hands busy with Bud Jr.’s wife Suzanne (Amy Driscoll), an emotional wreck who has recently discovered another woman’s “cheap and tawdry” earring in the backseat of their family car. When Reverend Hooker’s (C.J. Leigh) flatulence threatens to derail the service, Bud’s family has to pull together so that each can remember and honor him in their own way.
This collection of odd and eccentric characters is fun to watch, and their reactions to Bud’s passing are more about their own lives and expectations than they are about the man they are supposedly trying to honor. Bud Jr. and Suzanne’s marriage is in trouble, not only because she discovered the earring but also because he has left them with no money, living in a trailer because he squandered all of their money on a dream: a machine that cleans parking lots. It’s interesting that Bud Jr., with his bizarre and clearly useless dream, is a quiet contrast to Suzanne whose behavior is outlandish as Jr.’s pipe dream. She is loud and dramatic, often bursting into torrents of tears and any effort she makes to comfort Raynelle or the others ultimately ends up being all about herself and how she feels. Driscoll’s hysterics are fun to watch and play nicely against Figueroa’s more stoicly stupid portrayal of Bud Jr. – he’s all heart and no brains. Ray Bud and Lucille are much more grounded and earthy, and provide the show with an emotional center: they have been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby for some time, and Lucille is surrounded by women (Suzanne and the comically pregnant Nadine [Laura Sorenson] whose 8 children are all named after celebrities) for whom giving birth is a regular and unappreciated occurrence. There is a moment as the Turpin women are serving the funeral lunch where Lucille opens a bag to find a bucket of KFC, a reminder of her last miscarriage; this moment is both funny and sad and typifies the poignant moments of the show which are tender but still flavored with a bit of dark wit. Even Raynelle, who insists throughout the run of the show that Bud should be remembered as “mean and surly,” ends the show on a soft beat standing next to her husband’s casket.
In addition to the main cast, the show features a lot of great character work: Mare Thompson shines as Veda, an elderly member of the church and one of the “Joy of Life” singers on Reverend Hooker’s radio program, whose birdlike voice recounts all of the aches and pains of her wheelchair-bound husband Norval (Frank Sikich). Sikich is hilarious as the incomprehensible Norval, and then returns in a later scene as Clyde, an ominous co-worker of Ray Bud’s who offers to help him “take care” of any problems he might have with the nickel-and-diming undertaker Depew. Erin Hendrickson handles the role of well-off cousin Juanita quite well, reminiscing about her glory days as the local Yam Queen and throwing her money and success in everyone’s face. Leigh’s Reverend Hooker is quirky and funny, a pretty standard send up of the southern preacher but quite funny, and he bears a striking resemblance to Colonel Sanders. And Delightful, a character of few words, is nevertheless entertaining as a running gag throughout the show – one can only imagine that Misialek leaves the theatre every night feeling stuffed to the gills!
The staging of the show makes the best use of the Fire Hall’s small stage and generally succeeds. The show features a wide range of interior and exterior locations from Ray Bud and Lucille’s kitchen, living room and front yard, Raynelle’s kitchen and bedroom, and several locations in the Depew funeral home. Through small changes in furniture and props, the stage handles all of these locations well enough (though the yellow of the walls used on the stage left section is perhaps a little too striking to fully transform and some of these locations end up blending together a bit) and there is a fold out section of the stage that creates the outdoor scene which, when combined with the lighting design, is truly inspired. Much of the show’s accompanying music is provided by Karen Braaten who makes a brief cameo as insulted organist Merline Depew.
This show is a funny little southern gem with a dark streak, and audiences should come prepared for some humor that pushes boundaries (jokes involving miscarriages may be a bit jarring to the unprepared!). It has a drawl like Steel Magnolias but never gets bogged down in sentimentality: poignant moments are brief and effective, and often accompanied by a bit of dark humor. At the heart of it, the play speaks to the complicated nature of family, the different ways we cope with loss, and how life, chaotic and troublesome, can jar so many people when it abruptly comes to an end.
The show runs for two more weekends, February 20 – March 1 with shows at 7:30 pm on Thurs – Sat and a 2 pm matinée on Sunday the 23rd. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students, seniors, and military.
Tags: Amy Driscoll, Bud Turpin, C. J. Leigh, dark comedy, Dark Humor, Dearly Departed, Eliot Glassheim, Erin Hendrickson, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Frank Sikich, funeral, funeral comedy, Gabe Figueroa, GGFCT, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Gregory Norman, Houston Scharmer, Jacob Thomas, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Kinney, Kelsey Misialek, Kjerstine Trooien, Lana DeMars, Lana Stallard DeMars, Laura Sorenson, Lynn Stauss, Mare Thompson, Mayor Lynn Stauss, Mayor Michael Brown, Michael Brown, Miss Jaye, Norman Funeral Home, Pat DeMars, Pat Mars, Peat Moss, PeatMoss, President Robert Kelley, Robert Kelley, Steele Magnolias, Terry Dullum, Theresa Knox, WDAZ