Valeree Pieper, Lorrie Halsall, and Diane Greenwood in Dearly Beloved Prior to its appearance on the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's 2008 schedule, I hadn't heard of the Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten comedy Dearly Beloved, so I was reasonably surprised when I arrived for Thursday's opening-night presentation and saw that, barring a handful of seats, the house was completely full. (Did these people know something I didn't?) I took it as a good sign, however, and there was an even more promising one not 60 seconds after the show started, when its first line, its very first, earned a huge, unexpected laugh.

I'm happy to report that the signs weren't in any way misleading, as Dearly Beloved - a loopy Southern comedy in which a group of Texas eccentrics attempt to pull off an ill-fated "perfect" wedding - is a terrific amount of fun, filled with enjoyably broad stereotypes and unapologetically ridiculous antics. (The play is like Steel Magnolias if you removed the shrillness, the aggressive manipulation, and the funeral.) It's charming and funny and unfailingly likable, and while I'm not yet sure if the lion's share of praise goes to the playwrights, director John VanDeWoestyne, or Richmond Hill's cast and crew, that's all right - there's plenty to go around.

Outside of musicals, you rarely see a stage piece boasting three separate authors, and Dearly Beloved is a pretty good argument for the publication of more. If I were to guess the breakdown of duties here, I'd say that one playwright was probably responsible for the laughs, one for the sentiment, and the third also for the laughs; the show may occasionally dip into Real Emotion territory, but when a play's characters include a flower-shop-slash-bus-depot owner who moonlights as a wedding planner, and a bull-semen deliveryman training to be a priest, Real Emotion is obviously not of the utmost concern.

Frequently, the setups to Dearly Beloved's gags are predictable, yet the punchlines themselves rarely are (a character berates a physician by saying, "That quack couldn't cure a ham"), and the physical comedy, wonderfully well staged by VanDeWoestyne, is so joyously silly that you laugh at both its goofiness and its fearlessness. I thought the magical lighting change that accompanied Carla Stevens' tarot-card reading was especially inspired - right off the bat, the director trusts you not to take anything here all that seriously - but the means by which Aunt Twink (Valeree Pieper) straddled her makeshift piano bench would run it a close second, and the scene wherein another aunt, in the midst of a menopausal hot flash, climbed atop the buffet table, grabbed a cleaver, and began hacking away at a turkey nearly brought the house down.

Nicholas Waldbusser and Kady Patterson in Dearly Beloved Little surprise, considering this aunt is played by Diane Greenwood. You could hear the happy murmurs in the crowd upon this veteran Richmond Hill performer's first entrance - as you could with later appearances by Stan Weimer and Archie Williams - and Greenwood doesn't let her admirers down; her Aunt Honey Raye, a lascivious vixen in a dress that's indistinguishable from a teddy (a stellar piece of Jean Melillo costuming), is a miniature explosion of personality. And Pieper is every bit Greenwood's high-comic match, as Twink's pathologically determined attempts to secure a mate of her own - bellowing like a pissed-off Bea Arthur - are given riotous life in the actress' unpredictably bold readings. (Williams plays the object of Twink's affections, so it makes perfect sense that his Wiley remains in a babbling, blotto stupor throughout.)

At first, it seems that Lorrie Halsall's mother of the bride, Frankie, is too sane, and the actress' deliveries too measured, for Dearly Beloved's profoundly batty universe. Yet as the show's lunacy escalates, Halsall peppers her reserve with moments of hilariously snippy impatience, and Frankie's coolness begins to feel like a state of grace amidst so many endearing nutjobs: Weimer, exuding hapless confusion though strangled-hillbilly cadences; Eugenia Giebel, whose ball-busting wedding planner is, I think, the performer's most marvelously confident (and hysterical) Richmond Hill portrayal yet; Larry Lord, giving great Jack Webb as a just-the-facts-ma'am cop; Nicholas Waldbusser, whose brilliant deliveries seem to come from some sunny, gonzo universe all his own; Kady Patterson, whose Gina Jo is a delicately, radiantly abashed comedienne. (The double-cast performer plays the bride and her twin sister, gets two curtain calls, and deserves both of them.)

Richmond Hill's latest has its share of problems, most notably a second act that gets bogged down with at least two subplots too many; the play seems to reach a natural climax, when Susan Philhower's enjoyable bitch-on-wheels finally gets what's coming to her, and then continues for roughly a half hour longer. But the show's flaws are rendered nearly insignificant by the buoyant sense of playfulness on display in Dearly Beloved. It's a wonderful time at Richmond Hill, and from a personal perspective, a long overdue one; the last time I enjoyed myself this much at the Barn Theatre, I hadn't yet begun my Christmas shopping.


For tickets, call (309) 944-2244.


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