Stage & Dance

Wedding comedy is a case of unbridaled humor

Studio Players' production of Dearly Beloved originally was scheduled to run in January.

"I said, 'No, no,'" director Tonda-Leah Fields says. "I said, 'You have to have it at the end of the season.' This is the perfect kind of show for this time of year."

If you follow the title to its logical next lines, you see why: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today ..."

It's a wedding show, and wedding season is in full bloom.

The ubiquity of weddings is what makes them such routine fodder for books, movies and plays.

"Everybody's been to a tacky wedding," says Shea Baker, who plays Twink, one of the aunts of the bride who turns the reception into a pig roast and potluck dinner, much to the chagrin of the mother of the bride.

Dearly Beloved is part of a play franchise, sort of in the spirit of the Greater Tuna or Nunsense plays. Jessie Jones wrote the funeral comedy Dearly Departed, which led to this play, co-authored with Jamie Wooten and Nicholas Hope. Beloved is the first of their Futrelle Sisters trilogy, set in fictional Fayro, Texas; the others are Christmas Belles and Southern Hospitality.

The Futrelles were once a top-selling gospel trio, but they have been estranged since Honey Raye Futrelle ran off with the No. 1 Christian ventriloquist. Several marriages later, she's back for the wedding of sister Frankie's daughter Tina Jo. That adds a layer of tension to a day already fraught with it.

In addition to turning the reception into a church social, Twink is desperate to get her drunken boyfriend to the wedding because a fortune teller informs her that he will pop the question only if he sees a wedding in the next couple of days.

The mother of the groom, the queen of what passes for Fayro high society, does not approve of her son marrying into the Futrelle family and actively works to derail the nuptials.

"You can identify with these characters," says Debbie Sharp, who plays Frankie. "Probably anybody who has gone through a wedding has run into some situation like this, whether it's a sister or someone else who steps in and tries to help and makes a big mess of things. And then you've always got some relatives that you wish you didn't have to invite them but you do."

Baker recalls a friend who had her wedding in the Bell House with a reception of Chick-fil-A and beer, "and they're still married," she whispers. "It says good times."

Frankie is trying to make her daughter's wedding an "elegant affair," Sharp says. But things keep getting in the way, like the pig roast and Honey Raye constantly trying to take off her dress because she's having hot flashes.

There are also a few poignant mysteries. Why has Frankie been going to the doctor? Why has her husband, Dub, been going to see another woman a few times a week? We also want to find out whether Tina's twin sister Gina Jo and seminarian Justin will discover that they have eyes for each other.

This will be familiar territory to people who saw Studio's Dearly Departed in 1999 or any other regional productions of that show and Christmas Belles.

"It's in the same kind of vein, kind of goofy, the characters — put it this way: When I'm playing the sanest one on stage, there are some crazy people up there," says Jim Wilkeson, who plays relatively calm Dub.

Wilkeson and his wife, Melissa, have been in previous Departed productions.

One thing Fields and Sharp have found in particular is that the playwrights know where their shows are playing and often visit. Last summer, the writers, based in Asheville, N.C., dropped by for a barbecue with Studio leaders on the way back from another production of one of their shows. After Studio's run, there are 14 other Beloved productions scheduled across the country this year, according to the writers' Web site, www.joneshopewooten.com. And their latest show, 'Til Death Do Us Part, will premiere at Asheville Community Theatre in July.

"I think it's just good business," Fields says of the visit by Jones, Hope and Wooten. "You can tell that they're just real good friends having a good time."

Plays like Dearly Beloved probably work best that way, and you could say the same of weddings.

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