A tragic comedy in poverty-stricken Illinois

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Cody Southward portrays Rallis in Rantoul or Die.
Cody Southward portrays Rallis in Rantoul or Die.

by Kelly Fahey

Suicide, infidelity and crimes of passion set the tone for Rantoul and Die, a dark comedy produced by the Greensboro College Theatre last weekend. Amid empty beer bottles, cigarette smoke and Dairy Queen hamburgers, the cast of this grim affair quarrel over the complexities of life with a comical attitude and a deep country twang.

Rallis, played by sophomore Cody Southward, has fallen into a pit of despair over the impending loss of his beloved but malevolent wife Debbie, played by alumnus Nicole Swofford. Using this conflict as a springboard, the play weaves through violent arguments and sinful intrigue set to the blue-collar, working-class backdrop of the town of Rantoul, Ill.

From that perspective, Rantoul and Die shouldn’t be funny. The rude and abrasive Debbie desperately attempts to rid herself of her weak and whimpering husband Rallis, who affably describes himself as “tenderhearted” throughout the performance. When Rallis decides to end it all, he comes up a bit short and winds up brain dead. It’s tragic. The heartlessness of the characters, save for Rallis who has nothing but heart, should leave audiences crestfallen.

Still, it finds a way to be comical. The actors rattle off far-fetched analogies comparing the characters to porch dogs and tigers, the walls are decorated with a gun, an American flag and a poster that reads “the second amendment is my gun permit”. The extreme bluntness of these stereotypes and absurdity of the characters offers the audience an opportunity to detach themselves from the seriousness of the conflicts at hand.

Rallis’s only proponents in this play are his brash, philosophical best friend Gary (Brad McBride), who is quick to offer Rallis advice and a beer, and the almost uncomfortably cheerful Callie (Sierra Smith), who doubles as Debbie’s manager in the town’s “flagship Dairy Queen” where Debbie works full time.

It is only after Rallis falls short of doing himself in that Debbie decides she needs to clean up her life. She leads an admittedly careless and full-throttle lifestyle, and believes that her husband’s violent act of love and devotion is just what she had coming.

In hopes of correcting her past mistakes, she stays with the incapacitated Rallis, and with the help of Callie, feeds and cares for him. This enrages Gary, whom it turns out was seeing Debbie behind his so-called best friend’s back.

The plot winds through these arguments effortlessly, making it seem like the issues of infidelity and divorce are commonplace and easy to deal with. The expletive-laden script, written by Mark Roberts, is harsh and unforgiving, painting each of the characters as unlikable nitwits.

Still, who says you have to like the characters to enjoy a play? These people aren’t meant to be liked, and that’s what allows this should-be tragedy to morph into a surprising farcical comedy.

Roberts gained his fame writing for CBS’s “Two and a Half Men,” an undeniably lighthearted, but definitely raunchy sitcom on CBS. He set the play in the actual city of Rantoul, about 10 miles from where he grew up. The town, which faced economic hardship after the closing of Chanute Air Force Base, is an appropriate setting for the story of a couple whose love has seen better days.

As unforgiving as the play is, Rantoul and Die gets away with covering heavy subject matter by juxtaposing it with quick-witted comedy and outlandish actions like Rallis cutting his earlobe off in hopes of making his wife stay with him. Roberts succeeds in making a grim situation comical with extreme stupidity and affability.