“Greater Tuna,” the comedic chronicle of a typical day in the third smallest town in Texas, comes to Lincoln Theater Napa Valley in Yountville on Sunday, May 17 at 5 p.m. This comical two-man show is a popular satire of life in rural America – where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.
The play “Greater Tuna” was written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in 1981 in Austin, Texas where it became a cult favorite before moving on to Houston then to the Kennedy Center and finally an extended run at Circle In The Square in New York. Since then, the trio has written the popular sequels, “A Tuna Christmas” and “Red, White and Tuna.” Last summer, the fourth play in the Tuna canon opened in Galveston, “Tuna Does Vegas.”
The show’s stars Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne play more than 20 characters representing the population of the entire Greater Tuna area including men, women, children, animals and space aliens. The “cast of characters” requires very quick costume changes by Holbrook and Payne and their crack team of “dressers.” Some changes occur in fewer than four seconds, prompting Payne to refer to the dressers as his very own “NASCAR pit crew.”
“The show is a workout,” said Payne. “I walk off as Vera the church lady with wig, jewelry, pantyhose, gloves, everything. Eight seconds later I’m back on as Stanley, a seventeen year-old delinquent in camouflage.”
“Greater Tuna” opens with the morning news report from the local low-power radio station hosted by two slow-talking broadcast celebrities - Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie - who keep the town up-to-date on Tuna’s late-breaking news. From there the production ensues with a fast-moving and highly-entertaining avalanche of the town’s characters and their sometimes ridiculous antics.
“Jef and I are actually around the same age as original stars Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were when they started back in 1981,” said Topher Payne. “So this tour really captures the energy and anarchy ‘Greater Tuna’ had early on.”
So are these two actors from anywhere near the town of Tuna, Texas? Not quite. Jef Holbrook is from Georgia and Topher Payne is from Mississippi, so even though they are not from Texas, the duo recognized some of the characters from their own childhoods.
“Early in rehearsals (director) Ed Howard told us we were being way too nice,” said Payne. “He told us that these people are from Texas. They say exactly what’s on their minds, and couldn’t care less what people think. Southerners coat everything with a little sugar. Texans don’t, and that makes them a lot of fun to play.”