Dearly Departed by David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones is the sort of sublimely silly down-home Southern Gothic comedy that Towne Players artistic director Beth Honeycutt whips up like the mile-high topping on an indescribably delicious home-made lemon meringue pie. This highly energetic encore production of Dearly Departed, which has become the Garner, NC-based theater troupe’s signature piece, features many of the same actors reprising their roles. But Honeycutt has added some fresh faces, some fresh touches, and a few surprises — much to the delight of her opening-night audience last Friday.

When Big Bud Turpin, the laconic family patriarch (played Oct. 12th by Mike Raley of News-Talk 680 WPTF, and by a different celebrity each performance), unexpectedly drops stone-cold dead at the breakfast table while his wife, Raynelle (Marty Smith), berates him for his lack of interest in organized religion, it sets off an epic Family Feud over the funeral arrangements. Big Bud’s dry-eyed widow Raynelle wants to chisel “Mean and Surly” on his tombstone, his tightly wound eldest son Ray-Bud (Tim Upchurch) wants to economize, his penniless younger son Junior (Rusty Sutton) wants to splurge, and their prominently pierced and heavily eye-shadowed Goth younger sister Delightful (Arlie Honeycutt) could care less. The funeral-home bill, which the indignant Ray-Bud alone will pay, mounts minute by minute.

The laughter builds and builds and builds as Tim Upchurch as Ray-Bud fusses and fumes over the thoughtless extravagance of Rusty Sutton as the impecunious Junior, while Arlie Honeycutt as Delightful silently deconstructs a Barbie doll and Kelly Stansell as Ray-Bud’s calm but emotionally fragile wife, Lucille, and Sharon Pearce as Junior’s high-strung wife, Suzanne, put their two cents worth in for good measure. Marty Smith makes a fine straight man for her oddball brood and their hypersensitive spouses. Tim Upchurch, Rusty Sutton, Kelly Stansell, and Sharon Pearce each contribute a crisp comic characterization.

But Pearce is especially good at channeling Suzanne’s growing hysteria for comic effect, and her pleading with the adulterous Junior to straighten up and fly right, punctuated by screamed threats aimed at her kids in the back seat, provide some of the show’s funniest moments. Meanwhile, Frances Stanley as Bible-thumping Aunt Marguerite and Scott Honeycutt as her ne’er-do-well — if not outright demonic — son Royce are absolutely hilarious as they constantly bicker over anything and everything.

Holmes Morrison is a hoot as Big Bud’s talkative wheelchair-bound friend Norvell, his words rendered incoherent by the lingering aftereffects of a stroke; and Danny Gilchrist is a scream as poor Rev. Hooker, suddenly, shockingly incapacitated during the eulogy by a bad burrito. Both Holmes and Gilchrist give gust-busting performances.

Also amusing are Tiffany Russell as Norvell’s gold-digger girlfriend Veda, Maggie Barton as Nadine, Michael Armstrong as the drunken auto mechanic Clyde, and Beth Honeycutt as snooty Juanita the once and forever Yam Queen who keeps lording it over runner-up Suzanne until Suzanne could just scream.

The first of three local productions of Dearly Departed during the 2007-08 theater season sets a high standard for University Theatre at N.C. State (Nov. 29-Dec. 1) and Theatre in the Park (June 13-15, 20, 22, 27, and 29) to meet. A sudden death, a tense family reunion, a wacky wake, and an even wackier funeral kept the Garner Historic Auditorium audience howling last Friday night. The fun will resume tonight.

The Towne Players present Dearly Departed Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 18-20, at 8 p.m. in the Garner Historic Auditorium, 742 W. Garner Rd., Garner, North Carolina. $10 ($8 students and seniors), except $5 per person for groups of 10 or more. 919/779-6144 or Towne Players: Garner Historic Auditorium: [inactive 1/10].