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Tuna on Wry 

by Ann M. Colford

Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, is a place where everyone's a Baptist, teenage girls aspire to be cheerleaders and the nice little old lady down the block keeps strychnine on hand to poison the "egg-suckin'" dogs who wander too close to her chickens. Sooner or later, everyone in town ends up on the air at radio station OKKK, along with timeless hosts Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis. But like every small town, Tuna has a dark side, too. When Judge Buckner, who "hung more people in the '30s than any other active judge," turns up dead in his home, the coroner says it was a massive stroke. But was it? And what about the fate of Ripper, the $2,000 bird dog owned by Henry Burras? Could Stanley Bumiller, the no-good son of Bertha and Hank Bumiller, have anything to do with either mystery?

The current production of Greater Tuna at the Lake City Playhouse doesn't promise to answer these and other profound mysteries, but it does offer plenty of laughs along with a few surprising moments of seriousness. Although there's a thin thread of plot holding Greater Tuna together, it's best not to get too caught up trying to follow it. The script, written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, is a series of sketches showing off the eccentricities of the town's residents, loosely structured around the morning-to-night activities of a day in the life of Tuna.

One key to any Tuna production is the backstage crew. With costume and character changes taking place in as little as 10 seconds, the team behind the scenes is as important as the actors up front. In this respect, the Lake City crew performed admirably. Character changes appeared seamless, with credit due to both the technical crew and the actors.

The actors' ability to differentiate between their many characters is the second key to a successful Tuna, and the two young actors here are to be commended for their work. Each character had an individual identity, partly through costuming and wigs and such, but mostly due to mannerisms and speech. There was never any confusion about which character was on stage.

Overall, the individual characters were well done, although some were more convincing than others. Jordan Gookin was particularly strong as the conscientious Humane Society advocate, Petey Fisk, and the town's society belle and maven of decency, Vera Carp. As Fisk, Gookin displayed just the right level of timidity and devotion to the animals in his care without going totally over the edge into wimpiness. We may believe that his heart wins out over his head most of the time, but his sincerity was never in question. Gookin nailed the mannerisms of Vera Carp, a Bible-thumpin' church lady full of social pretensions who just barely keeps the foibles of her own family under wraps while gleefully pointing out those of her neighbors.

Less successful for Gookin is Didi Snavely, owner of Didi's Used Weapons (Motto: "If Didi's can't kill it, it's immortal"). While his wild-eyed interpretation of Didi fittingly brought to mind a fully loaded shotgun, there was nothing in his manner or costuming to tell me Didi is a woman. This is one tough cookie, and the gender implications of having a young man play a hardened, cynical woman are admittedly challenging. Still, some additional clues to Didi's gender would have been helpful.

Keenan Bianchi ably tackles his male roles, and he does a fine job as Tuna's strychnine-laced grand matriarch, Aunt Pearl Burras. As Pearl, Bianchi walked gingerly with the hunched-over steps of an older woman who's aware of her own physical frailties, but he kept her from sliding too far into slapstick. Unfortunately, he had more trouble maintaining the consistency of another female character, Bertha Bumiller. In his first scene as Bertha, Bianchi appeared self-conscious about his womanly attire and seemed to rely on the outsized platinum wig to create the essence of femininity, walking with a masculine swagger at times and looking like nothing more than a guy in drag. But he grew more comfortable with Bertha as the scenes progressed, and the play's closing moments had a particularly touching scene with Bertha alone listening as a Patsy Cline song echoed yet another heartbreak.

Throughout the play, both actors displayed skillful comic timing, not only between each other, but with the audience as well. When the audience laughed, the actors paused until the laughter subsided before continuing with their next lines. Sometimes they had to maintain character like this for quite some time before the audience recovered, and on opening night they handled it well.

Maintaining an appropriate Texan accent for each character throughout the play is yet another challenge facing the Tuna cast, and Gookin and Bianchi were generally up to the task, with just a couple of minor bobbles, like the occasional dropped "R." As a native Bostonian who lived in Texas for a time, I can tell you that Texans know where to put their "Rs" - unlike many Bostonians. On a few occasions, I noticed an actor's accent slipping somewhat north and east, but that's a small quibble.

Generally, both cast and crew performed their roles well; the quirky denizens of Tuna, Texas, are well represented in this Lake City Playhouse production. The actors might be hamming things up for their hometown audience, but this Tuna is no turkey.

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