Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?

NCSU TheatreFest
Titmus Theatre
Through June 14

Let’s face it: If you’re looking for the cutting edge in live theater, summer stock usually isn’t where you go to find it.

More or less by mutual consent, companies and crowds alike take a three-month break from Ibsen, Strindberg and Beckett, turning their attentions to otherwise neglected genres: the screwball comedy, the romantic farce and the murder mystery.

TheatreFest, the longest ongoing summer stock practitioner in the area, has built a constituency over the years on a formula of vintage comedies and mysteries, with the occasional Noel Coward upgrade. But this year, the first dish of their new season has more pepper in it than might be expected.

With a title like Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?, most will expect little from Del Shore’s 1988 play but small-town Southern contretemps, played for laughs. But the work, which was made into a 1990 film starring Beau Bridges and Tess Harper, does more than use its characters as a convenient source of disposable punch lines.

Under Allison Bergman’s direction, this tale hits all of the expected notes as three adult children pull out a formidable collection of old axes for further grinding when they return home for the final days of patriarch Buford “Daddy” Turnover, who gets an ultimately touching read by Danny Norris.

These skirmishes over life choicesin which the phrase “white trash” occurs more than onceare just barely presided over by Mama Wheelis (a good Joanne Dickinson), the no-nonsense grandmother.

The laughs that accompany the greed, sanctimony and hubris in this comedy (and the hair and costume choices of designer Em Rossi) stop when characters share believable moments of grief. We also pause when Shore makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the family’s misogyny and abusiveness a laughing matter. More than one character relates being beaten in months or years past, before T. Philip Caudle’s short-fused Orville threatens his wife, Marlene (the solid Sandi Sullivan).

But in this world, bullies get comeuppance, women escape and justice comes in a distinctly poetic variety. If Shore’s approach doesn’t quite match up to the Southern satire of Preston Jones, it’s in the same county, deep in the heart of Texas.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Summer stock market.”