Guest Columns

HUDSON: MAMA HATED DIESELS; DEARLY DEPARTED

A slice of Americana comes to Denver with two delightful productions

• “Mama Hated Diesels,” by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman. Directed by Randal Myler. Playing at the DCPA Stage Theater through May 9.

• “Dearly Departed,” by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones. Directed by John Ashton. Playing at the Aurora Fox through April 17.

Randal Myler has crafted a cottage industry assembling musical reviews for boomer audiences. Since staging “Quilters” at the DCPA nearly thirty years ago, Myler and his musical sidekick, Dan Wheetman, have launched tributes to Hank Williams in “Lost Highway,” “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues,” coal mining songs in “Fire On The Mountain,” “Appalachian Strings” and “Love, Janis.” His productions have won both Critic Circle and Tony award nominations. His shows have also filled a lot of seats and continue to generate royalties from regional, college and high school productions.

“Mama Hated Diesels” applies the Myler formula to truck driving songs from Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zant, Lester Flatt, Jackson Browne and Chris Hillman, just to mention the better-known tunesmiths who made the cut. This is yet another finely spun, cotton candy confection that it would be difficult to dislike. Staged without an intermission, a small cast sips coffee at a truck stop diner swapping stories that provide the dialogue knitting Myler and Wheetman’s musical selections together. Their cast offers a smart, cynical but savvy collection of long haul truckers.

Two huge screens form the back wall of the diner and serve up a slideshow of ‘on the road’ photographs. There aren’t many congested, creeping city street shots, but the breathtaking isolation and immensity of the American highway offers a surprising treat. The beauty and lure of the road is easy to understand. Myler can’t help slipping in a little preaching about the economic pressures that are currently forcing most independent rigs out of business and pushing drivers onto corporate payrolls. These fiercely independent men and women may gross $40-50,000 in a month and see all but a thousand or two of that eaten up by fuel and expenses.

“Mama Hated Diesels” is a sympathetic portrait of blue collar, working class Americans. Truckers provide the virtually invisible workforce that moves products from farm to market and loads the shelves with Chinese imports in our big box stores. It’s a fragile supply chain dependent on personal character, petroleum and a willing embrace of extended solitude. As is so often the case, country and western songs provide the perfect vehicle for insightful observations on the rewards as well as the pain of working life. The band is first rate, the voices strong and the story true. You can’t ask for much else.

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John Ashton has managed to reassemble the talented cast that made “Dearly Departed” a long running box office success for his comedy troupe during the ‘90s. Their comic timing hasn’t lost a beat. Bill Berry still dominates the stage as crazy Aunt Marguerite. But, while the DCPA’s “Mama” laughs with its characters foibles, “Dearly Departed” asks you to laugh at them. The Bud family brings new meaning to the term dysfunctional.

These folks are fighting all sorts of demons, including drugs, alcohol and each other. When the pater familias dies unexpectedly during the opening scene, the entire family begins to gather for his funeral. The resulting inter-generational turmoil isn’t pretty, even if it is often pretty damned funny. The program identifies the location as “Below the Mason-Dixon Line.” This is hillbilly humor at its broadest. Every member has a longstanding grievance with someone else in the family.

There is no Bud inheritance to squabble about. These are characters without assets, but not without accounts they want to settle. Watching them behave badly provides the same fascination as watching a car crash in slow motion. You feel guilty, but you keep on watching and laughing.

Miller Hudson is a longtime observer of the political scene. The former state legislator also has a keen eye for the arts. He has been writing reviews for the newspaper off and on for the last 30 years.