Tuna Just As Funny As a Jerk In the Knee
by Scott Whited, The Pueblo Chieftain
Is it more enlightened to laugh at people, or to laugh with people? The audience at “Greater Tuna,” the season finale for the Center Stage Performing Arts Series on Saturday night, didn’t have to concern themselves too much with that question. They got to laugh both with people – their fellow seat-sitters at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, and at people – the hapless inhabitants of Greater Tuna, the setting of the play described in the program as the “third smallest town in Texas.”
It’s late summer 1981, and the folks of Tuna are small- and narrow-minded, perfect fodder for laugh-inducing jabs by playwrights Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard (who also directed). A record-burning is in the offing, but listeners of omnipresent radio station OKKK are told not to worry: pompadoured Little Richard is going to hell, but hip-swiveling Elvis up in heaven because he’s a good ol’ country boy at heart.
This play is a favorite for both touring and ambitious local companies, mainly because of its primary theatrical device: Its 20-character cast is played by two virtuoso actors. This attracts actors because of the challenge and producers because of the reduced cost. Pueblo has, in fact, seen a number of versions over the last decade or two. People love to laugh (just ask Ed Wynn in “Mary Poppins”) and “Greater Tuna” provides plenty of laughs.
The two-man cast in this production featured two Georgians, Columbus-bred Jef Holbrook and Atlanta-based Topher Payne. Both were talented clowns, milking their characters for all the broad comedy they could. Heck, with so many yokel Texas twangs on display, they were halfway home. We all know that hicks and rubes are funny by definition, right?
A fine example was Holbrook’s R.R. Snavely, a besotted local who played an imaginary violin while trying to figure out whether he had or had not seen a UFO (short for “Unidentified Flying Object,” OKKK repeatedly clarifies for its audience), shaped like a chalupa. Payne depicted many a goofy laugh-inducer, especially the holier-than-thou Vera Carp, whose sleep-excused show-stopper was splaying her beskirted legs indelicately in the crowd’s collective face. Happily shocked chortles filled the auditorium.
There were occasional nods in the direction of empathy for the hicks. Holbrook’s big-hair housewife Bertha Bumiller does her best with her oddball brood, but betraying husband Hank (also played by Holbrook) leaves her soothing her pain with the country Dr. Phil: Patsy Cline singing her ode to eternal love, “Always.” Animal-lover Petey Fisk (Payne) beseeches a Lord he’s not sure is out there, “If you did create all this, we could sure use some help taking care of it.”
“Greater Tuna” takes sure aim at our funnybones. But the comedic response is similar to that of a knee’s jerk in response to a tap by a physician. We know these situations, accents, and characters are supposed to be funny, so we laugh as a reflex, almost without thinking.
Upon reflection, however, there is a mean-spirited quality to the humor. These people are provincial, not terribly well-educated, and biased in favor of their own experiences and habits. They deserve to be laughed at, right?As Vera Carp says to a fellow viewer visiting the town’s funeral home to pay respects to a male “hanging judge” who’s been found dead of a seeming stroke while wearing a Dale Evans swimsuit, “Glass houses.”
Glass houses, indeed.