The June 12 final dress rehearsal for the funeral farce, Dearly Departed, at Sanford, NC's Temple Theatre, nearly became a funeral in itself. Regina David, an Obie-winner for True West at the NY Shakespeare Festival, fell off the stage and, to all appearances, looked ready to join the afterlife.
Here's co-star (and Temple's general manager) Serena Ebhardt, to tell the story:
"Regina is a senior citizen, and her night vision isn't very strong. She plays Bible-thumpin' Aunt Marguerite, who has to walk directly to the front of the stage. At last night's dress rehearsal [for a friends & family invited audience], she walked right off the edge of the stage. She lost her depth perception and and fell four and a half feet, hitting the front row hard. She actually knocked herself out."
"The rest of us were backstage," she continued. "We heard the director yell, and we didn't know if a tech cue had gone wrong or what, so we went out to see what was going on. Now, when I was in Philadelphia, I saw an 80-year-old woman give a death-rattle and die at the dinner table. When Regina began to come to, she started making the same noises. And her head was bent sideways like her neck was broken. She came to a little bit but didn't know where she was. Then an ambulance came, they put her on I.V., and she kept saying `What happened?' 'Regina you fell off the stage.' 'Well, I never did that before.' Then five minutes later she'd ask the same question, again and again throughout the ambulance ride.
"Of course, once we realized she wasn't going to die, we came up with a contingency plan to put the show on. My first thought was to call another local theatre that did Dearly Departed recently. I called their Aunt Marguerite, who still knew the lines. "But here's the happy ending: after we'd gotten back to the theatre -- and we're all sighing with relief that things will work out -- Regina walks into the back of the theatre two and a half hours after the fall, and announces, `I'm fine, let's go on with the show!'
"I'm telling you, I thought the woman was dead when she was on the floor with her neck bent. But all she had was a bruised shoulder. Tonight we're gonna glow tape the hell out of the lip of the stage. We expect a fabulous opening -- even if it is Friday the 13th."
Ebhardt joked that she was glad Regina wouldn't be playing "the title character in Dearly Departed" and said she apologized to the last minute understudy -- who'd spent the past day getting ready to go on -- by treating her to a free dinner and inviting her to see the show.
As for David Bottrell and Jessie Jones' play itself, the show opened on schedule June 13, for a run through June 29.
The Turpin family of Departed "put the fun back into dysfunctional." These backwoods Bible belt brethren, coping with Daddy's funeral, have an odd take on death: "When I die," says Ray-Bud, "don't tell nobody. Just bury me in the backyard and tell everybody I left you."
Appearing with Ebhardt and David in Dearly Departed are Cinnie Beggs, Mark Filiaci, Kate Finlayson, Jim Fleming, Alice Anne Ford, Matt Roush, Jennifer Terrell and David zum Brunnen. Designing the show are Harold Heno (lighting), Guy Lee Bailey (costumes) and Scenic Associates of Wilmington and Ernie Badgett (set).
Tim Morrissey directs the show, which is sponsored by First Citizens B Miller Funeral Home, which is run by co-designer Ernie Badgett.
Believe it or not, the show is suitable for family audiences. "There's one word we don't feel our audiences would accept," said Ebhardt, "so we just substituted another for it. Some of the material is borderline, like when one woman has a miscarriage into a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket, and then a guest shows up with KFC, which sends her screaming out of the room -- but these are things that happen at Southern funerals. We take pictures of the body, we cry and mourn -- and then go and eat. We're very dramatic with death."
"We're in the bible belt here," Ebhardt adds, "and you have to walk the line. But this show is being done by many companies this season. It's a truthful play, and the truth is funny. I once had an aunt who treated her husband like a dog in life. But at the funeral, she cried and threw herself on the coffin. Then her lips became numb and she broke into hives because she turned out to be allergic to formaldehyde. No one liked her, so we all started laughing."
Said Ebhardt, "I think people like to laugh at themselves, and the writers have done a nice job of writing truthful stuff, but we won't play these people as stereotypes."
For tickets ($12) and information on Dearly Departed call (919) 774-4512, or refer to the Temple Theatre regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
. --By David Lefkowitz