Greater Tuna Pokes Fun at Small-Town Texas Life
‘80s play still frighteningly relevant today
As a native Texan living in New Mexico, I find myself having to apologize for my state quite often. It’s a bastion for a particularly vile, unabashed strain of racism, a hotbed of old school conservatism, and, just to twist the knife, it’s swimming in oil money. I mean, we gave you guys Rick Perry. I’m truly sorry.
But after I’m done apologizing, I usually find myself meekly giving a few reasons why Texas shouldn’t be excised from the Union just yet: We also gave y’all Willie Nelson and Buddy Holly, after all. And, I dunno, bluebonnets?
The slice-of-life play Greater Tuna seems to understand the simultaneous shame and pride that goes along with being from the reddest state in the country. Written in the early ‘80s, this depiction of a day in the life of Tuna, the “third smallest town in Texas,” still paints an accurate picture of the backwoods-ness of most of the peripheral towns in the state. From the Baptist congregation’s assurance that “all are welcome here—even Catholics” to the Ladies of Tuna Javelina Club (“we thought the Lions Club was too liberal”), every joke still rings true. Uncomfortably so, sometimes.
Directed by Marc Comstock, The Vortex Theatre’s production of Greater Tuna does it justice. In this vignette-based comedy, the characters of small-town Texas come alive: There’s Bertha Bumiller, the housewife who’s weary of her husband and her children; Petey Fisk, the sole beleaguered member of the Greater Tuna Humane Society; and Pearl Burras, the old chicken farmer with a mean streak and a stash of strychnine. All of these—and 17 other characters, including a dog—are played by two actors. Yeah, two. Think about that the next time you complain about how much is expected of you at your job.
The two actors in question, Brennan Foster and Shawn Boyd, perform the marathon feat of constantly changing from one character to the next with grace and—when grace has worn thin and all the wigs are sweaty—with humor. As they open the stage with the live broadcast of the Struvie & Wheelis Show on radio station OKKK (yep), their happy but not-too-bright characters Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis deliver the small-town news that nobody but a resident could possibly be interested in. They then realize that they forgot to flip the power switch, and that they haven’t been on air the whole time. But it’s ok, none of the news is too critically important in the town of Tuna, and nobody’s holding them to a schedule. They flip the switch and start over.
Different townspeople call into the OKKK radio station alternately to complain, report and push their agenda. There’s Petey Fisk, reminding the denizens of Tuna that fish have feelings too, the town drunk, R.R. Snavely, enthusiastically reporting his latest UFO sighting, and Didi Snavely, advertising for Didi’s Used Weapons (“If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal.”) And, of course, there’s Elmer Watkins—the head of the local KKK chapter, who’s dedicated to making the town safe for “the right kind of people.” The audience’s reaction to Watkins is somewhere between nervous laughter and steely silence. This, the most hateable character, is also the most realistic.
While one actor is playing the radio host, the other is switching from character to character with only the briefest sojourn backstage to change costumes. This two actor gimmick—which comes straight from the original script and involves lots of unseen assistance from the crew—gives the play much of its excitement and humor. On the single occasion that Boyd just doesn’t have time to go backstage between one character and another, for instance, a brief fourth-wall-breaking striptease from one costume to another does the trick well.
According to Marc Comstock, these character quick-changes were the hardest part of the play for the actors: “It was like training them for a marathon. If they don’t have the same level of energy at the end of the show as they did at the beginning of it, it falls flat.” Thankfully, amazingly, Boyd and Foster pull it off: They never miss a cue and never let their accents slip. Although they may be sweating bullets and sprinting from one character to another by the end of the play, the awkwardness of the character changes quickly becomes part of the joke.
Though Greater Tuna certainly isn’t a hard-hitting political satire, it’s abundantly clear what political reality the original writers were living in at the time. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the play’s satire, unfortunately, is the fact that we’re dealing with much the same issues today. “The show was first produced in 1981 and its still so current,” says Comstock. “They talk about the TV show ‘Roots,’ which was just redone; they talk about racism, guns, politics, and religion—all still current.” While audience members can laugh about some of these issues when they’re on the stage, the endurance of Greater Tuna speaks to the endurance of many of these social issues, too—especially in places like small town Texas.
While Greater Tuna’s main agenda is to poke gentle fun at the ignorant ways of the small-town people of Texas, it also takes time to acknowledge some of the things to be appreciated about such towns. When the young winner of the Javelina Club’s poetry contest reads her poem on the radio, as childlike as it is, one gets the idea that the people of Tuna really love where they live. She mentions the beautiful sunsets, the friendly people, the “everybody knows everybody” closeness. While it’s certainly not enough to make me want to move back to Texas, it does make it clear that there’s some appeal to small-town life there.
Catch Greater Tuna at the Vortex Theatre until Aug. 6. More details and tickets available at vortexabq.org.