Review: ‘Greater Tuna’

After 20 years as a regional favorite, "Greater Tuna" is still as timely as ever in its current Wilshire Theater production. Original New York headliners and creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams assume 20 different parts. And their interpretations of homemakers, disc jockeys, juvenile delinquents and clergymen in this satire about bigotry in a small Texas town are so fully realized that it feels as though dozens of actors are populating the Wilshire stage.

After 20 years as a regional favorite, “Greater Tuna” is still as timely as ever in its current Wilshire Theater production. Original New York headliners and creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams provide an acting tour de force, assuming 20 different parts. And their interpretations of homemakers, disc jockeys, juvenile delinquents and clergymen in this satire about bigotry in a small Texas town are so fully realized that it feels as though dozens of actors are populating the Wilshire stage.

Kevin Rupnik’s set, featuring signs of burgers, Coca Cola, hot dogs and Lone Star Beer, perfectly supplies the rural flavor of Tuna, “the third smallest town in Texas.” The first inhabitant we meet is Thurston Wheelis (Sears), announcer on radio station OKKK, revealing winners of Tuna’s essay contest, “Human Rights, Why Bother,” “Living With Radiation” and “The Other Side of Bigotry.” Tuna’s idea of liberalism is allowing minorities to audition for the chorus of “My Fair Lady.”

Michael Moore’s anti-gun activism springs to mind when Didi Snavely (Jaston Williams) brags with bloodthirsty pride about her hardware store selling weapons “guaranteed to kill. … If Didi’s can’t kill it, it’s immortal.”

Costume designer Linda Fisher’s witty outfits become a co-star when Sears and Williams periodically slip behind a backdrop and pull off 40 fast clothing changes. The most inspired creation in this gallery of characters is Bertha Bumiller (Sears). Head of the organization “Citizens for Fewer Blacks in Literature,” she patiently points out to interviewer Chad Hartford (Williams), from Intellect Magazine, that certain books should be banned from library shelves — “Roots,” with its “one-sided view of slavery,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “Romeo and Juliet” — and clucking with disapproval about Shakespeare’s rampant sex among teenagers and hinting darkly, “We’re looking into the rest of his stuff, too.”

Some scenes are over-extended, and a few characters become repetitive, especially in the second act. The large Wilshire Theater occasionally obliterates the production’s modest, small-scale appeal. But when energy slackens, “Tuna” snaps back with great sequences. Most notable of these is the funeral of a respected judge. Aunt Pearl (Sears), a formidable old woman with a penchant for poisoning puppies, shows up to denounce him as the faithless lover of her youth, singing vengefully over his casket, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Williams has his best moment as Stanley, once sentenced to reform school by the judge for spray-painting stop signs, who relishes the knowledge that he permanently tainted the dead man’s highly regarded image by forcing him into a Dale Evans swimsuit just before his demise.

The two stars never treat their characters with condescension, even when the material is unflattering. Director Howard is careful to avoid a contemptuous, superior attitude. His portraits of blind, often dimwitted, personalities are affectionate, so we can comprehend their prejudices, viewpoints and victories.

Greater Tuna

Wilshire Theater; 1,910 seats; $52 top

Production

A Charles Duggan/Broadway L.A./Wilshire Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Directed by Ed Howard. Sets, Kevin Rupnik; costumes, Linda Fisher; lighting, Root Choyce; sound, Ken Huncovsky; stage manager, Robert Tolaro. Opened and reviewed April 23, 2003; closes May 4. Running time, 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Arles Struvie, Didi Snavely, Harold Dean Lattimer, Petey Fisk, Jody Bumiller, Stanley Bumiller, Charlene Bumiller, Chad Hartford, Phinas Blye, Vera Carp Jaston Williams Thurston Wheelis, Elmer Watkins, Bertha Bumiller, Yippy, Leonard Childers, Aunt Pearl Burras, R.R. Snavely, Reverend Spikes, Sheriff Givens, Hank Bumiller Joe Sears
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