BWW Reviews: Osborne & Eppler's Latest Version of SOUTHERN FRIED FUNERAL is a Down Home Hit

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Here in the south, funerals are so much more than religion-based, flower-scented services to send our loved ones "off to glory" - they are, in fact, huge social events: gathering all manner of family and friends together for an impromptu reunion to share stories, tears and laughter, replete with a "grief buffet" that features a groaning board laden with enough fried chicken, mushroom soup-laced casseroles, deviled eggs and pecan pie to feed Coxey's army (as my Mama would always say) or to rival the very best holiday repasts you ever saw laid out on grandmama's antique sideboard and that big ol' table where all the grown-ups gathered after church every Sunday afternoon.

Showing amazing deference toward their forebears and all those fine folks who've made staging the proper Southern funeral a work of art, playwrights Dietz Osborne and Nate Eppler have created a warm and funny tribute via their Southern Fried Funeral, a wonderfully witty play that is fairly redolent of magnolia blossoms and a pot liquor seasoned by family rivalries and long-held regrets and recriminations. In short, it's just like walking into your mama's house again, the memories washing over you like so much Delta-borne humidity, to pick up a tall glass all sweaty from the melting ice inside the sweetened tea made from springwater and love.

First presented in 2010 by the Bethlehem Players (of Franklin's Bethlehem United Methodist Church), Southern Fried Funeral, now onstage through November 26 at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre (where Osborne and Eppler staged their First Night Award-winning Rear Widow last year), is aging gracefully, taking on the patina normally reserved for the sterling silver serving pieces in that breakfront in the dining room. Lustrous and heartfelt - yet uproariously funny in a way that only Southerners can be - the story told in Southern Fried Funeral is authentic and genuine, farfetched and unbelievable, just like we Southerners like all our stories.

You know what I mean? It has that unhurriEd Grace of a story told by a family elder that you can't really believe is true, but you know in your heart of hearts that's there absolutely no way it can't be. In short, you'll find yourself easing into the tale comfortably, the lilt of "real" southern accents making the most trying aspects more palatable, and the knowledge that something just like this could have happened in your own family making you feel all the more at home.

Highlighted by the sharply written dialogue for which Osborne and Eppler are justifiably acclaimed, Southern Fried Funeral offers a peek inside the funeral preparations and hurt feelings of the Frye family of New Edinburgh, hard-working, good country people who are known for their generosity and largesse throughout the community. Daddy Dewey Frye has died suddenly and unexpectedly during a speech at the Rotary Club's luncheon meeting (which, in itself, features an abundant buffet of regional delicacies), and his now-widowed wife Dorothy is expected to make "all the necessary arrangements" while ensuring everyone's happy with her choices, even while they mourn the passing of one of the town's pillars of virtue.

I tell you, that Dewey Frye was a good man, but good lord it's a wonder he didn't die sooner what with all the things he did - from the Rotarians to the Baptist Church, from the Lions Club to the pilgrimage committee - the man was a saint, I tell you. And Dot's a good woman, too, even if that oldest girl of hers is working the pole in Dallas and that other one can't keep her husband and boys (Boyce and Royce) under control. Then there's that boy, Dewey Jr. (aka "Dew-Drop") who's kind of slow, but he's got a good heart.

Directed by Osborne with care and a laudable attention to detail, Southern Fried Funeral features a blue-ribbon ensemble of Nashville's most talented comic actors - Martha Wilkinson, Amanda Lamb, Jennifer Richmond, Layne Sasser, Tammie Whited, Warren Gore, Chris Bosen, Flynt Foster, Bryce Conner, Daniel Hackman and Debbie Kraski - who comprise a virtual who's who/dream team of totally committed thespians who bring the richly drawn characters to life. So well-conceived is Osborne's vision for the production and so focused are his actors that you can't help but fall a little bit in love with the residents of New Edinburgh, as unrelentingly nosy and bothersome as some of them may be - so much so that the stories related in Southern Fried Funeral may worm their way into your personal recollections, mistakenly substituting for events that rattled your people's lives.

Personally, I thought Osborne and Eppler had created a strong script when I first saw Southern Fried Funeral when the Bethlehem Players did the show, but this production is more satisfying. The dialogue seems sharper, more focused and definitely funnier (even though it was sharp, focused and funny in its first edition) and I suspect the playwrights have tightened up the script for better effect. And while the folks at BUMC were mighty fine in bringing the characters to life onstage, the Chaffin's Barn cast makes them larger than life while craftily retaining the humanity that makes them so relatable and accessible.

I have to confess, however, that some 14 years ago Martha Wilkinson, Layne Sasser and Debbie Kraski and I (along with scores of other friends) were intimately involved in a real, true-to-life Southern Fried Funeral, that resulted in my life changing forever, and seeing them take on their roles here (Wilkinson delivers another expected stellar performance, this time as the fiftysomething Dot Frye; Sasser has audiences rolling in the aisles with her spot-on performance as the daft and dizzy neighbor Fairy June; and Kraski is a hardboiled Southern churchlady determined to exercise her self-imposed authority over the proceedings) had an unexpected impact on me, making me feel all sentimental and nostalgic. Whenever you go through something like that with people who love you, it changes you forever, and despite the fact that it was a difficult stage in your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing you could once more feel the love that washed over you when those people were gathered around you for that whole grief buffet of intimacy that you shared.

So, I'm not sure if I can be that objective about the performances of those three women because of that shared experience. Oh, please, who am I kidding? Of course I can - and let me assure you, they're terrific, as are the rest of the cast.

Richmond and Lamb are wonderfully cast as the Frye daughters, Harline and Sammi Jo, investing their characters with heart and soul and a shared rapport that makes their knock down-drag out food fight in the kitchen all the more fun. Conner shows restraint as Dew-Drop, playing him as a wide-eyed innocent with a sense of adventure that is very funny yet never pokes fun at the dim-bulb scion of the Frye family.

Hackman again displays enormous versatility and range (is there anything this fine actor can't do?) as Atticus, a local boy grown up to be an attorney in the town, who provides Harline with some romantic entanglements on her trip home. Bosen, as Dewey Frye's manipulative, politically driven, good-for-nothing brother Dub, is as big a jerk as you could possibly hope to see in the role and shows his dramatic flair in so doing. Foster repeats his role from the play's premiere as Sammi Jo's long-suffering husband Beecham, who'd much rather be watching the Ole Miss Rebels play football than dealing with his wife's nagging. And finally, Gore and Whited offer their usual strong support as loving friends and neighbors, delivering some very funny lines with unerring skill.

Southern Fried Funeral offers audiences a wonderfully warm theatrical experience, brought to vigorous life by an impressive cast and crew. Add to that the bountiful buffet that comes before the play and you're likely to feel as if you've taken a trip home for an unexpected yet heartfelt family reunion, that leads you effortlessly into the holiday season.

Southern Fried Funeral. By Dietz Osborne and Nate Eppler. Directed by Dietz Osborne. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Through November 26. For details, visit the company website at www.dinnertheatre.com; for reservations, call (615) 646-9977. 

 



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis