Del Shores's "Daddy's Dyin' - Who's Got the Will?" directed by Martha Duncan for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, does for white trailer trash what Mary Louise Parker does for the suburban single mom pot dealer. In this raucous morality play, the family's widowed patriarch Buford (James Frank Crabb) has just had a debilitating stroke and his assembled family waits at death's door for the reading of the will. What works the siblings into a catfight frenzy are rumors that he's recently changed the will and, worse yet, he can't find it. Stalwart but incapacitated, Buford's not all there, mentally, but he's got an excuse; the family's not there either but there's no excuse for their disgraceful behavior.
Mindful of Tolstoy's contention about unhappy families being unhappy in their own way, Duncan's ensures that things clip along like an armadillo run amok in a Texas mall. The way she handles the siblings' personalities makes you marvel at the crapshoot that is genetics. Caretaker Sarah Lee frets as she descends into spinsterhood. Lurlene (Gina Stickley) struts like Christ into a trailer park Jersusalem. Evalita (Elizabeth M. Desloge) stakes men the way wildcatters stake oil fields. And Orville (Kevin Wisney-Leonard) sloughs toward inanity. Supporting characters leaven, barely, the sourdough nastiness. Mama Weelis (Geraldine D. Fuentes) can still corral these rapacious stallions while Evalita's latest hunk, the far-out, man, Harmony (Eddie Teran), suffuses the bad vibes, and Orville's abused and adorable wife, Marlene (Margaret Schugt), suggests that Hope is not just a place in Arkansas.
The ensemble performances of these well-drawn characters were scary-good. Gish's Sara Lee was an expression of dutiful sacrifice and subsequent despair. Fuentes's Mama Weelis felt her way into the very heart of ornery patience and angelic understanding. Wisney-Leonard's Orville went all out in his brakes-are-out-no-use-steering performance peppered with skids marks of frailty. Stickley's Lurlene suggests that, were one allowed near enough, she would smell of incense and Lysol, while Desloge's Evalita over-the-top performance makes her character desirably insufferable.
Given the picayune dysfunctions of the assembled throng, you'd think the production describes what happens when someone dies: skeletons get dug up and no one mourns. Add to the mix the fact that, despite all this squabbling, Buford still hasn't died and you realize how low the lowly have fallen. But what really drives this moving story is Buford's final wish. Though we don't notice it above the din of selfishness, the old man has imposed his sweet and gentle will upon his family, one that isn't revealed until the production's last minute, at which time you realize how this production shows, contrary to the evidence shown otherwise, it's not about an entitled scrambling for the will but the last wish of the departed, one that turns this story of hardscrabble lives into an exquisitely wrought requiem for the dead.
Performances are 8pm, Fri & Sat, 2pm, Sun. The show runs until June 5. Tickets are $12-22. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info call 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.