When family is involved there’s never a dull moment. Add death into the mixture and the calamity of chaos becomes an uproarious and heartfelt comedy about putting the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional. Just Off Broadway Baltimore presents their seventh production of Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s got the Will this spring and it’s a hoot. Directed by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy, the laughs come rolling out of Lowake, Texas like tumbleweed scooting across the dessert at high noon. This is one impressive community theatre comedy that you will not want to miss.
There scene changes may be a little long, affording the actors a chance to switch up their very clever and era appropriate costumes, but the show moves quickly and the moments between scenes is dosed heavily with thematically appropriate music including a few rootin’ tootin’ Dolly Parton tunes. A few of the actors rumble through their lines like a cattle heard on stampede, but these minor glitches aside the production that comes off the stage at Just Off Broadway is remarkably impressive. The set alone has intricately detailed elements that nestle it comfortably into the hot hell of Texas in 1986.
Set Designer Theresa Bonvegna transforms the church hall stage into a proper old homestead left boiling away in the Texas heat. The most noteworthy detail on Bonvegna’s set is her window-box air-conditioning unit with big old fashioned dials and streamers that blow out of the deep-angled vents. From the ugly pastel plate collection mounted across the back wall to the simplicity of the room’s layout, Bonvegna fabricates theatrical authenticity into her scenic design work that really grounds the production in the mid 80’s of Lowake.
A unique couture is outfitted across the cast letting each actor fill into the character in a way they feel suits the script. The cast provides their own costumes and are credited accordingly with this design element of the production. This means Sara Lee is able to look like the mildly and religiously reformed version of Dolly Parton, which creates a sharp contrast to the white-trash country alley-cat look crafted by Evalita. All three of the Turnover sisters hone in on design elements that separate their sister from the other two. Orville and Mama Wheelis need to be noted for their taste of country-bumpkin redneck overalls and old granny house dresses and aprons respectively.
The design element that really brings the production together is the soundscape. Director Jason Crawford Samios-Uy wears many hats for the production including being the show’s Sound Designer and Dialect Coach. The gravely rumble of cars pulling up into the driveway alongside the rowdy neighborhood dog sound authentic as they echo across the stage at appropriate moments. The ringtone of the phone sounds dated like it might have been an actual 80’s recording. But the most impressive sound on the stage isn’t the cleverly placed Dolly Parton or old country tunes, it’s the sound that comes out of the actors’ mouths. All too often in a “location” piece or a “period” piece the accents are questionable at best, but in this production the consistency and accuracy of the deep Texas draw is impeccable. The nasally sound that quips with the sisters when they get to verbal cat-scratching is especially piercing and really dials up the intensity of those fighting scenes.
Samios-Uy has found an intriguing balance within this production between the fast-rolling comedy and the heartfelt moments that straddle the border of touching and tearjerker. Crafting delicate pauses into these more somber moments, Samios-Uy brings an emotional vulnerability to the forefront of these characters’ experiences. The moment when the children gather around Daddy early in the second act easily brings tears to the eyes as everyone can relate to the potential of losing a loved one. Levity and gravity are treated equally by Samios-Uy and to top off his directorial success, the blocking is whistle-clean and would receive Mama Wheelis’ seal of approval.
As an ensemble piece, the cast works and plays well together on the set. Harmony (Patrick Jay Golden) who sidles into the Turnover-Wheelis household as an outsider to down-home country living, manages to find his niche with music. Golden’s portrayal of the character is mellow, as one might expect from an 80’s vegetarian musical hippy. But he has his moments of notoriety in act II during an amusing herbal-enhanced scene with Marlene (Lydia West.) Bringing a heavy hand of thunder to the emotionally and verbally abused character early on, West digs her heels into Orville’s backside with sassy comments and a mouthful of attitude every chance she gets.
Joey Hellman is a standout scene stealer playing Orville, much like Jerry Gietka is playing Buford Daddy Turnover. Hellman takes the role of the obnoxious, prickly redneck brother with zest and is unrelenting in his cactus-like delivery. The breakfast scene involves the focus being pulled toward the way he eats and belches his regards to Mamma Wheelis. Hellman excels at peeing all over heartbreaking and tender moments that Daddy shares with his daughters as well and this is where that immediate counterweight system of levity and gravity comes into play. His accent is spot on, one of the clearest among a cast of impressive accents, and his general demeanor is meaner than a one-eyed cross-clawed cat. Gietka, who plays the title character of Daddy has little moments to hilarious to reference specifically as they often come as a surprise to the audience. But in his more serious moments there is something truly heartbreaking and earnest about his existence on the stage.
Sara Lee, Lurlene, and Evalita; never were there such a set of sisters with Lurlene the pious and Evalita the wildcat and poor peace-keeping Sara Lee caught in the middle. Their fighting is as real as it comes when it comes to sororal banter and the love lost and trust betrayed flies between them like bees on honey, sticky and angry. They make for quite a show, this terribly terrific trio, slinging verbal mud and poisonous words that bite back and forth throughout the performance.
Melissa Patek takes on the quieted role of Lurlene and dotes on Daddy a bit more than the other two sisters. Her soft-spoken nature and gentle temperament should not be mistaken for weakness because she’s able to hold her own in a showdown with the other sisters when the time comes around. There is a delicacy to her portrayal of Lurlene, making her out to be a nicer individual than the character would initially lead on to be.
Rachel Patek plays the youngest of the Turnover sisters, Evalita. Looking, walking, and talking like a white hot country trash mess, Patek delves into the grit of the character and exposes it all with frills and fuss. From the moment she arrives in the house it’s clear that Patek is embodying a great big ball of Texas sunshine that radiates so bright it burns holes through even Sara Lee’s tough skin. Between her mouthy attitude and her shrieking fights with Sara Lee, Patek really brings this junior water pistol to life.
Christie Day tries her hardest to play the peacekeeper as Sara Lee. But even peace has its limits, much sooner reached when dealing with a bunch of characters like Lurlene, Evalita, and Orville. Day has a nervous and anxious energy about her in the beginning of the production this is prominent in a physically noticeable way. Though this energetic quality becomes internalized as the production progresses, its momentum is never lost and it often drives the inferno of things that come funneling out of her mouth when she hits her breaking point late in the show. Targeting the intense dramatic moments for raw and unadulterated truth, Day succeeds in grounding these moments in her character’s reality and really knocks them dead as she goes.
You’d never know it to look at Jennifer Skarzinski but she takes on the matronly old granny role of Mama Wheelis. With a rootin’ tootin’ rough-n-tumble attitude, Skarzinski is the epitome of spitfire old granny. A heavy handed character with a heaping dose of emotional grit and old school mannerisms, she’s vocally, emotionally, and physically every bit Mama Wheelis as one could hope her to be. The mincing old-lady shuffle is convincing, as is the makeup she applies to drastically age herself to look older than Gietka’s Daddy Buford character. It’s her keen comic timing and sharp-witted delivery that make her portrayal thoroughly enjoyable.
I reckon it’d be a doggone shame if this show were skipped, and as seating is as limited as the one-weekend-only run is, I reckon you best be getting tickets to this hysterical dysfunctional family comedy before they sell out.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission
Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s Got the Will plays through May 31, 2015 at Just Off Broadway Baltimore at the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church— 4605 Belair Road in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be reserved in advance by sending an email with the subject line “TICKETS” to firstname.lastname@example.org or purchased at the door. At this time Just Off Broadway accepts cash payments only.
Click here to read the TheatreBloom interview with Director Jason Crawford Samios-Uy.