Chicago Theatre Review
Where Your Business is Everyone’s Business
Deep in the Heart of Tuna – American Folk Theatre
In what might be considered “the best of” from the previous four sketch comedies, this new Tuna installment, written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, is having its Midwest premiere in Chicago. Since it takes place at Christmas, this newest chapter, from the third-smallest town in Texas, might’ve played even better a few months ago. However, the over-the-top, homestyle humor, featuring so many broad, affectionate characters that are a signature trait of this series, are what make this presentation special, no matter the time of year.
Audiences already familiar with previous Tuna comedic casseroles (“Greater Tuna,” “Red, White and Tuna,” and “Tuna Does Vegas”) will delight in spending another affectionate hour and 45 minutes with many of the well-known characters coping with familiar situations. For theatergoers new to the charms of Tuna’s citizenry and their folksy funnies, this production makes a fine introduction to the series. First devised in 1981, this fond, warmhearted commentary on small-town life, peppered with charming southern pizzazz and platitudes, is both fond and funny.
This particular installment opens at the Tuna, Texas radio station, WKKK, where good ol’ boys Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis are chatting on the air about the upcoming community theatre production of “A Christmas Carol,” which may be halted because of the facility’s delinquent light bill. The disc jockeys report that the mysterious Christmas Phantom, notorious for stealing and defacing local holiday decorations, has struck again. In addition, the winner of the essay contest is announced, revealing that cheerleader Connie Carp’s theme entitled “Human Rights: Why Bother?” narrowly beat out another composition called “The Other Side of Bigotry.” The boys also note that the local squadron of Smut Snatchers are now going after Christmas carols, cutting any racy references to the Virgin. Suddenly Arles and Thurston learn from the station manager that someone forgot to turn the power on at the radio station, revealing that for the past half hour there’s been nothing but dead air.
This skit sets tone for the rest of the play. Actor Grant Drager, remembered for his hilarious roles in several Hell in a Handbag productions, and actor Anthony Whitaker, very funny in “Two from the Trailer Court” and Porchlight’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” play all the roles in this production. In addition to Arles, the slender, boyish Drager plays Didi Snavely, the proprietor of Didi’s Used Weapons; snobby Vera Carp, the vice president of the Smut Snatchers; Petey Fisk, the tenderhearted manager of Tuna’s Humane Society; and all three of the Bumiller kids: teenage twins, bulimic Charlene and reform school graduate Stanley, and young animal loving Jodi, who collects dogs and cats like baseball cards.
Anthony Whitaker, who may remind theatergoers of a more restrained Dom Deluise, not only plays Thurston, but portrays a pair of matriarchal main characters. He plays Aunt Pearl, the poodle poisoner and blue jay sharpshooter. Despite her hard-as-nails persona we find Pearl to be an old softy, especially when it comes to her nephew, Stanley. Whitaker also portrays Bertha, the addled mother of the Bumiller kids. She runs the house, decorates her modest Christmas tree, tries to keep a firm hand on her three challenging children and suffers in silence at the antics of her philandering husband. One of the best moments of this production is near the end, when Bertha stops by the radio station on Christmas Eve for the annual holiday party. Despite being a devout Baptist, Bertha reluctantly agrees to a slow dance with Arles. It’s a quiet, poignant moment that speaks volumes about both characters. Each character is hurting in a different way, but the gentle, slow dance they share takes some of the bite out of their sadness and offers hope for the future.
Derek Van Barham directs this play with warmth and an easy-going style and tempo. While a certain relaxed pacing feels appropriate for this play, sometimes the interlude between scenes is a little lengthy. Understandably the two actors require time to change costumes and wigs, as they transform from one character to another. However it might be to their advantage to have more than one dresser backstage to help facilitate these transformations. Or maybe, with a few more performances under their belt, the team will learn to metamorphose faster. Right now the transitions are covered by prerecorded radio segments and music, but the audience feels as if they’ve been left alone in the dark to ponder what will be next.
This latest installment in the Greater Tuna canon of comedies is filled with the usual unpredictable characters, comic situations and delightful homilies and homespun sayings. In this strange, fictitious little rural west Texas town, where your business is everyone’s business, audiences will smile at these familiar folks, portrayed by two talented actors, and even develop a fondness for these bizarre citizens. With a few more shows under their belt, this two-act enchantment will seem to whiz by, leaving theatergoers wanting even more Tuna, Texas shenanigans.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 4-March 5 by the New American Folk Theatre at the Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the theatre box office, by calling 872-588-5760 or by going to www.newamericanfolktheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.