Cast is good; 'Daddy's Dyin'...' isn't
The play could use some work on its pacing, since it's going for laughs. The production also has a low energy level.
By MILAN PAURICH
The Turnover brood finally locates their pa's will at the end of "Daddy's Dyin' ... Who's Got the Will?," but nobody involved in this latest production at the Oakland Center for the Arts ever finds the laughs in Del Shores' crude, jerry-built redneck sitcom. Truth be told, I'm not sure whether there are any.
Maybe someone should send Jeff Foxworthy or Larry the Cable Guy on a hunting expedition.
Shores, one of the most unaccountably popular wordsmiths in the community theater world, clearly aspires to the kind of colorful, down-home dramedies that Beth Henley ("Crimes of the Heart") specializes in. Unfortunately, "Daddy's Dyin'... Who's Got the Will?" seems like a reject from Vicki Lawrence's old "Mama's Family" TV series instead.
The Oakland playbill brags that "Daddy's Dyin' ..." has been performed in 2000 theaters worldwide. Good for him.
That doesn't make his play any less toxic or easy to sit through, even in a production as nicely acted as the Oakland's current tenant.
About the story
Set entirely in the rummage sale-tacky living room of cantankerous Lowake, Texas, matriarch Mama Wheelis (Denise Sculli doing a reasonable facsimile of Lawrence's Mama Crowley Harper), the action spins on the attempts of Turnover progeny Sara Lee (Regina Reynolds), Lurlene (Anna Frabutt), Evalita (Lori Beth Broderick) and Orville (Tim McGinley) to get their hands on Daddy Buford's will.
Recent stroke victim Buford is being discharged from the hospital, and Sara Lee has rounded up her siblings to help ease Daddy's transition back home.
But what everyone (including Mama Wheelis and Orville's plus-sized wife, Marlene) really wants to know is how much loot they're going to inherit when Buford bites the dust.
That's a workable enough concept for a farce (think chicken-fried Moliere).
Yet Shores' gag lines are more gag-inducing than funny, and the play's schizophrenic tonal shifts -- especially in the interminable second act -- could give you whiplash.
The character of Daddy Buford (Jeff Smith) goes from being the butt of senility jokes to the object of unearned pathos.
And after that "heart-tugging" moment with a broadly played scene where black sheep Evalita's hippie boyfriend Harmony (Glenn Stevens) and Marlene (a first-rate Mary Ellen Cleary) have a case of the post-pot munchies is more than a tad awkward.
Equally strange is having Sara Lee accuse tarty Evalita of sleeping with her fianc & eacute;, a character we've never met or even heard of before. (The less said about Sara Lee's big dramatic monologue the better. I kept trying to figure out where that sudden burst of Tennessee Williams-inflected melodrama came from.)
Directed by Oakland veteran Chris Fidram, huge stretches of "Daddy's Dyin' ..." seem both over and under rehearsed. Poor Stevens doesn't seem to have a clue what to do with himself when he's just hanging out in the background, and McGinley does too much of everything. Orville's blustery bullheadedness simply wore me out after two long hours.
Also problematic is the production's perilously low energy level. The pacing feels off much of the time, never a good thing when you're shooting for laughs.
Fidram, however, does manage to coax splendid performances from his hugely gifted cast. Broderick is especially winning.
It's a shame that Evalita disappears for a large chunk of Act 2 because Broderick is the liveliest presence on stage. I'd love to see her in a first-rate play someday.
"Daddy's Dyin' ... Who's Got the Will?" will be performed tonight, Saturday and Oct. 28th at the Oakland Center for the Arts. For tickets and additional information, call (330) 746-0404.