DEARLY DEPARTED, Encore Players, at the Second City, Donny’s Skybox Studio. David Bottrell and Jessie Jones’s two-act comedy, about a dysfunctional extended family brought together by the death of their shiftless pa, could easily have been loathsome and painful–an evening of cheap laughs that invites us to scoff at pretty much powerless people on the basis of their speech, eating habits, and religious practices. But every once in a while Bottrell and Jones show us, sometimes just for a minute or two, the humanity behind the hillbilly stereotypes. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a nice trick that goes a long way toward making this play about more than just the “humor” of funny, fat, Jesus-loving corn-dog eaters.

Too bad this cast, mostly recent and soon-to-be graduates of the Theatre School at DePaul, doesn’t have the seasoning–or the direction–to bring out the script’s deeper tones. They have their hands full just trying to make the scenes funny, which they manage only about 30 percent of the time. Under Michael Fox’s less than expert direction, the show has no consistent tone, the scenes don’t hang together, and actors peripheral to the action are allowed to steal focus with unessential stage business. The result is that Dearly Departed becomes the very model of the kind of white-trash comedy Bottrell and Jones tried so hard to transcend. –Jack Helbig