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Panhandle Players returns with delightful 'Departed'

By Mel Kelly and David Adlerstein

With the exception of Ben Turpin, who died suddenly at the breakfast table, first on Friday and Saturday night, and then again on Sunday afternoon, the Panhandle Players are alive.

They have returned, local theatre has resumed, ensemble acting that elicits in person laughter is now back among the living.

Delightful (Faith Ward) munches potato chips while Raynell (Pamela Sullivan-Boecker) looks on.
Junior {Royce Rolstad II) points a gun at his wife Suzanne (Jeana Crozier)
Veda (Sally Crown) feeds Norval (Mark Parsley) his pills

What I saw last weekend at Apalachicola’s Chapman Theatre, staging area for the comedy Dearly Departed, by playwrights David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, was a sight for sore eyes.

First the show was supposed to come off a year ago, but COVID-19 scratched that, and then director Steve Allen worked to have it in October, but the stage lights stayed dimmed yet again.

Along the way Allen lost some key actors, some by necessity, others by precautionary choice, but with a versatile fully-completed set by Mark and Natalie Parsley quietly remaining patient on the stage, the Panhandle Players decided to go with a carefully-restricted show.

The auditorium was sanitized, tickets were sold only online, temperatures were taken and no concessions were offered with the exception of bottled water. And, in an irony that would perplex the brow on Janus’ faces, the audience were the ones wearing masks.

The actors performed without them, and whether it was in part due to having so many months to prepare, or to a burst of excitement that comes with being freed to self-express, or to sheer divine intervention, they did a superb job, beginning with the long opening monologue by Turpin’s wife Raynell (Pamela Sullivan-Boecker) that had an energy that endured throughout the entire play.

The Panhandle Players are back and  Allen brought them back with a roar – of laughter, that is!

The first production of the group kicked off their season with a sadly funny spoof of a family patriarch’s funeral.  If ever such an event can be funny, this prize-deserving cast delivered the laughs and left some serious thoughts too as they acted their way through the play.

Some familiar faces and names were included in the cast, which had postponements, delays, cast changes and worry if audiences would attend the three performances on Feb 5,6 and 7.

If Sunday’s matinee audience was any indication of support, the Players can look forward successfully to the upcoming production The Corruption of Harry Finley, written by local photographer and artist John Spohrer. The story about a small town newspaper will debut March 26-28.

Dearly Departed began with the immediate death of father Bud, and as his children gathered around for his funeral, their stories, and those of some of the mourners, unfolded realistically with humor, pathos and even a note of tragedy, which is often true within any family.  Although his wife wanted his tombstone to read “Mean and Surly,” to reflect his part in their long marriage,  eldest (and most traditional) son Ray-Bud had that changed to “Rest in Peace” and thankfully was given a two dollar credit for the missing word on the lettering.

Juanita (Bunny Ison), Lucille (Julie Krouse), Delightful (Faith Lynch), Veda (Sally Crown). Suzanne (Jeana Crozier), Marguerite (Julia Ferrell), Nadine (Alexis Schefka), Rev. Hooker (Bob Caiola) and Royce (Thomas Wagner) are all names to watch for in upcoming productions. Each delivered their parts with fun and skill, delighting the audience with well-timed laugh lines and thoughtful moments of pause.  Royce Rolstad III, a Panhandle actor who needs little introduction; his comic delivery and even moments of tenderness always outstanding, will star in the Spohrer production.

Director Allen also played son Ray-Bud and he kept the cast serious on the subject even when the audience was laughing at the funeral food table, the Reverend’s message and the biblical verses pontificated by Marguerite.  The ensemble delivered a fun production, with stage sets and design by Mark and Natalie Parsley, local Apalachicola artistic folks. 

No such theater is complete without good lighting, sound, technical directors and the familiar radio voice of WOYS Michael Allen chimed in pretending  to introduce the religious station.  Clinicare of Eastpoint even had a credit for supplying wheelchair bound Norval’s realistic medical equipment.  The audience demonstrated their appreciation with a standing ovation.

The production was dedicated to the late Tom Loughridge, a long time member of the Players. His picture was a poignant reminder of the grandfatherly man who left his mark on the hearts of all who were lucky enough to know him or see him perform.

"This production was in a way a litmus test to let us see how many people would be willing to go to a live indoor performance.  It was not our usual numbers but we were pleased with the overall number," said Rolstad, a member of the Players' board. "  We sold a total of 205 for three performances.  As more people are vaccinated, we are confident our numbers will go back up.

"We typically average at least 400 people per show weekend.   We are also down around 70 percent over February of last year due to the fact that a large majority of people who attend our shows this time of year are snowbirds and are a more vulnerable population," he said. "A year ago when we did “Sweet Tea on the Front Porch” we had 700 people attend that show over three days, the most attended show in our history.

"We haven’t seen low numbers like these in a very long time.  It reminded me of our attendance years ago at our Sunday matinees when we only had 50 people in the audience or when we performed at the Eastpoint Firehouse - a very intimate crowd," Rolstad said.

"In the last four years since we have been at the Chapman we have seen our attendance grow from 400 people in a weekend to anywhere between 500 and 700 people attending our performances.  We hope to see our numbers go back up once things with COVID level out and more people are vaccinated," he said, "Even though the crowd was small, they gave us great energy.  As actors, that laughter and applause is our fuel and we cherish it."