Trip to Bountiful

The Third Visit to Tuna Still Yields a Profusion of Delights

Joe Sears (left) as Aunt Pearl Burras and Jaston Williams as Vera Carp.

"The old home town looks the same," croons Tom Jones in "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and as I once again "set foot" inside the city limits of the humble village of Tuna, Texas, I know just how ol' Tom feels. The set for Red, White, and Tuna, the third visit to Texas' third smallest community, is familiar from the series' earlier installments: There's the panoramic view of some Texas grassland plains framed within a silhouette of the Alamo; the vintage cabinet radio set against it, its dark polished wood setting off the illuminated dial with the warm, lighted match-orange glow; the kitschy kitchen furniture of bygone days – the chrome legs and Formica tops and vinyl seats with metal studs suggesting long service in a home that hasn't had much use for fashion in the last, oh, three or four decades. Whether or not this is the very set that the Greater Tuna Corporation uses for its productions of Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, it certainly appears to be that set; it has all the trademark elements scenic designer Kevin Rupnik used in those shows. So it feels like Tuna. Like home.

That's one of the many pleasant sensations that awaits fans of the Tuna comedies upon this return visit to the third smallest town in Texas: It feels like home. In the crackle of station OKKK as it hits the airwaves with all 275 watts of power, in the companionable concord of broadcasters Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie ("It is." "It is, it is."), even in just the image of Aunt Pearl's ample bosom, hanging low and full as a harvest moon, there's the comfort of the familiar. We know these things, and know them in such a way that when we encounter them again after a time away, the recognition of them gladdens our hearts, reassures us, sparks some sense of belonging. And as we've come to know it so well, Tuna has become, at least as much as Thornton Wilder's Grovers Corners, our town.

That alone makes Red, White, and Tuna worth the visit. It allows us another cruise round the town square, another chance to check in with the old gang. There's Pearl – oh, look at her fitted out for the Fourth in a Lady Liberty hat; with all those spikes over that killer glare, she looks more like some hayseed Hecuba, a Midland Medusa. And there's Didi Snaveley, still hawkin' used weapons and takin' the Lord's own good time every time she snarls out a good "God........................................... dam!" That is one trigger finger in serious need of some calamine lotion. And there's Petey Fisk, on another one of his critter crusades, and even though it's hotter'n Satan's armpit, he insists on wearin' that huntin' cap with the earflaps down. With his droopy eyes, it makes him look for all the world like a suicidal basset hound.

All the Tuna regulars pass through in this new edition, and they are entertaining as ever. Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, who collaborated on the previous two Tuna comedies, have lost none of their ear for the sentiments so specific to small-town Texas or the colorful phraseology that blooms there, and they stuff the script with picturesque remarks. Speaking for every rural Texan who's ever sought liquid relief from a Lone Star summer, Arles Struvie declares, "God bless whoever came up with instant tea." To let us know just how seriously a certain fellow gets her steam table sizzling, a lustful Inita Goodwin chirps, "I'd run a busload of nuns off the road to get to him." And Vera Carp, whose tongue is the only thing sharper than the points of her cat's-eye glasses, contemplating her impending coronation as Tuna High Reunion Queen, gleefully says of a rival, "She'll be so upset she'll be chasin' cars and bitin' at the tires." You can get a brain cramp trying to grab and hang onto all the memorable lines.

Of course, so much of the pleasure here has to do not only with how the lines are written but how they are delivered. Since Mssrs. Sears and Williams are once again embodying all the characters who inhabit Tuna, they naturally bring to this new production all the richness of expression and gesture that so distinguished these figures in the previous shows and imprinted them on our funny bones. Once more, Williams makes Didi Snavely the most hilarious misanthrope on the planet; shuffling across the stage like a drugged zombie, croaking out her lines in that deep death rattle of a voice, her eyes narrow slits and her mouth tilting dangerously to the right (echoing her politics), she's a crank soldier in her own Private Idaho. She's a hoot to be re-acquainted with, as are Williams' Helen Bedd, whose mousy squeak and excitable leg (always popping up) are a portrait of Hormones in Action, and his Arles Struvie, whose devotion to his new beau, Bertha Bumiller, puts the good in good ol' boy. For his part, Sears reminds us again through his portrayal of Bertha how full that character is, of humor and pathos and surprises. He plants her on stage in one of those Bertha stances we've come to know so well – left arm cocked on hip, right hand poised delicately on her breast, just over her heart, eyes cast upward, beyond that implacable globe of hair, mouth strung like a high-tension wire – and we see every martyred mother figure ever to be stung by a thankless child. And the accuracy of it makes us howl. But when the character is within real reach of romance, Sears' portrayal of her tentativeness, her fragile hope alternating with a sense of her own unworthiness, takes on a deeply personal air, and it brushes against our heart. Every scene with her is a delight. But then, to be fair, that can be said of every one of Sears' creations, and Williams' as well. The fact of the matter is, these men are so accomplished as actors, with such an elegant understanding of and flair for comedy, and they have invested so much in these characters for so long – almost 17 years! – that their Tuna is all delights, a grand harvest of humor, joy upon joy upon joy without end, a cornucopia of mirth.

Still, this spin around the old hometown is more than just another helping of laughs from the usual suspects. While the creators allow us to wallow in the familiarity of it all, to enjoy the unchanging nature of Tuna – something that we value highly in small towns – their real agenda in Red, White, and Tuna is change, the kind of change that affects even the third smallest town in the state, and the people in it.

The play takes place during a high school reunion, one of those events that lead people to measure who they are today against who they were in their teens. Among the previously seen characters, some have undergone significant changes. Stanley Bumiller, the surly anti-social j.d. of Greater Tuna, has transformed into a turquoise-wearing, Birkenstock-shod, Santa Fe artist. He's still surly, but he's social. Meanwhile, sister Charlene, a whiny wallflower in the earlier plays, has finally found love and how to make it – she's in the family way when we see her here. Two new characters, a couple of Tuna expatriates who venture back for the reunion, are fixated on change. In high school they were Fern and Berniece, but after leaving repressive, regressive Tuna for the more enlightened environs of Lubbock, they became Amber Windchime and Star Birdfeather. Decked out in industrial strength Deadhead tie dye and projecting major mellowness, the pair make for an extravagant contrast to the redneck ambience of Tuna (and allow Williams and Sears the opportunity to get Austin choking on its granola). As the usual Tuna shenanigans are taking place, characters are also wrestling with what time has done to them, is doing to them, has in store for them. Late in the play, Aunt Pearl speaks of her own death. To hear steely, give 'em hell Pearl contemplate mortality is to catch a glimpse of something vulnerable in her, and in the small-town types she and the other Tuna characters represent. Change comes to us all eventually. And what will we do with that?

Such an intimate question for such a funny play. But Howard and Williams and Sears have made room for intimacy in Tuna. In the closing moments of A Tuna Christmas, the dance between Bertha and Arles was handled with a quiet, private grace. In Red, White, and Tuna, as Arles and Bertha inch toward matrimony, they share anxieties and woes in a similar fashion. Their tentative romance blossoms into one of the finest aspects of the Tuna trilogy: a love portrayed in all its folly and its tenderness.

But perhaps the most tender moment of all in Red, White, and Tuna – and the one that brings together characters and story with play and actors and audience – comes before the final scene. Williams and Sears are about to change characters, but instead of taking their usual stroll offstage – that glorious Stroll they make as they head toward all their costume changes, so leisurely, so relaxed that it seems impossible it could lead to a complete change of clothes and alteration of character – no, instead of strolling offstage, each walks to a hatrack at the back of one side of the stage, and they make the final change to Arles and Bertha in full view of the audience. It's a remarkable moment, a gift to us as they bring this saga to a close, Sears and Williams acknowledging their art and our place in it before saying farewell. It is a gesture that gives the final scene something more personal than the resolution of a story we have followed for years. It acknowledges us as neighbors, as family, in Tuna.

Yes, it's our town.

Red, White, and Tuna runs through Jun 7 at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 472-5470 for information.

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