Greater Tuna Spoofs Small-Town America
By L. Pierce Carson, The Napa Valley Register
A simple party skit nearly three decades ago blossomed into a critically acclaimed comedy that’s been staged in theaters all over the world — even a command performance at the White House.“Greater Tuna” is a delightfully devilish satire on life in rural America created by Oklahoma natives Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, who also served as its original director.
Two actors play more than two dozen characters — including men, women, children and animals — who inhabit Tuna, “the third smallest town in Texas,” where the Lions Club is far too liberal and Patsy Cline hits are heard nonstop on radio station OKKK. The two-act, two-hour comedy begins with a radio report on the death of Judge Roscoe Buckner from an apparent stroke while wearing a 1950 turquoise Dale Evans one-piece swimsuit with “lots of cowgirl fringe,” and draws audiences in as it provides a fascinating look at outrageous small-town inhabitants, along with non-stop laughs.
The show began in the early ’80s as a party skit the trio created based on a political cartoon. Early tour dates found an instant audience coast to coast, as the show played to packed houses in San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston and Hartford before Sears and Williams found themselves performing “Greater Tuna” for more than a year Off-Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre.That led to an HBO special produced by Norman Lear, which took the “Greater Tuna” phenomenon to every city in America.
Sears and Williams eventually took the show to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a pair of command performances at the White House for President and Mrs. George H. W. Bush in 1990 and ’91.The popularity crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1988 as the highlight of Scotland’s famed Edinburgh Festival, while San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre saw a record-breaking seven-year run.Audiences liked “Greater Tuna” so much that Sears and Williams have written three sequels, which are all playing somewhere in the country at present.
“Greater Tuna” finally showed up in wine country last weekend, in the capable hands of a pair of talented Southerners, Jef Holbrook (Georgia) and Topher Payne (Mississippi). Sunday afternoon’s performance at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater was the final stop on a seven-month-long coast-to-coast tour. Seeing someone other than Sears and Williams inhabit the characters they created was indeed enlightening — to see that they’d drawn such larger-than-life caricatures that others could build on.
Although I’d seen the savvy Oklahomans send audiences into fits of laughter on numerous occasions, there were moments when I actually thought the weekend visitors were able to breathe added life into their respective roles. This is not an easy show to do as both men are often required to walk off stage and reappear in a matter of seconds as someone new, wearing a completely different set of clothes.
The two-member cast launches its small-town tale with radio announcers Thurston Wheelis (Holbrook) and Arlis Streuve (Payne), roles to which they return throughout the show. But they also introduce us to the Bumiller family — Holbrook as the well-intentioned mother, Bertha, and Payne playing the roles of the three children — twins Stanley (a reform school alum) and Charlene (a cheerleader reject) and Jody, who willingly takes home all the stray dogs offered to him by the director of the humane society.
Holbrook also does a star turn as Aunt Pearl Burriss, who runs a one-woman campaign against chicken-killing dogs with her “bitter pills” (read poison) until she accidentally kills her husband’s prize bird dog. The list of characters includes a klansman, staunch weatherman, UFO spotter, and the vice president of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, a fashionista named Vera Carp. I feel Payne made this character even more bizarre than the actor who created the role.
A moderately sized crowd, offered a cool auditorium on a hot afternoon, seemed to really enjoy this marvelous satire of small town Americana. Holbrook and Payne did the show’s authors proud.
A quick preview of some of these Texans reveals Judge Buckner who dies under mysterious circumstances, Vera Carp and her censorship club, the Smut Snatchers of the New Order who meet to censor the dictionary, town drunk R.R. Snavely who spots a UFO shaped like a bean burrito, the Tuna Little Theatre’s unique production of “My Fair Lady” using the scenery and costumes from “South Pacific” and the town’s one-man Humane Society who launches an urgent campaign to rescue homeless ducks.
“Greater Tuna” has been called “A tour de force of comic acting” by Variety magazine, and “Wonderfully warped … Audiences go bananas” by the New York Post. The performance at Lincoln Theater in Yountville is the final show on the current national tour, and the first visit to Napa Valley by Topher Payne.
“Our show at Lincoln Theater will be our final performance in the tour. I can’t believe it’s really ending. The cast and crew have been together for seven months, and we really are like family. But since it is time for us to say goodbye, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place to do it.”
“Greater Tuna” plays Lincoln Theater Napa Valley on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. For tickets which range from $29 to $39, contact the Lincoln Theater Napa Valley Box Office, 100 California Drive, Yountville, Napa Valley, by calling (707) 944-1300 or visit www.lincoln theater.org.