Greater Tuna

Presented by Charleston Stage

April 9-11, 16-18, 23-25, 8 p.m.

April 12, 19, 26, 6 and 9 p.m.


American Theater

446 King St.

(843) 577-7183

Ah, Tuna. Once more it lays claim to a local stage. Like Footlight’s earlier run of the second play in the trilogy, A Tuna Christmas, this Tuna has the essentials: Two men playing 22 roles, lots of comedy, and breakneck costume changes.

Charleston Stage’s Tuna, however, isn’t happy-go-lucky and blissfully innocent. This time a dark underbelly peeks out from underneath the overalls.

Julian Wiles directs a darkly comedic version of life in Tuna, Texas. Greater Tuna, the first in a series by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, has always been the darkest of the three plays. They are at once light-hearted parodies and biting satires of life in a small town.

For instance, we discover that kindly Aunt Pearl, played by Victor Clark, is really a little old lady with a penchant for putting strychnine in home-made dog biscuits and has more kills than Charles Manson. And we also learn that her nephew, Stanley Bumiller, played by Brian Bugstad, revels over the body of a dead judge. Stanley caused the stroke with a syringe full of air.

A Tuna Christmas is a funnier play, but in some ways Greater Tuna is the better production for addressing the dark undertones of redneck life. In 1985 and 1986, Greater Tuna was the most produced show in the country, primarily thanks to the comedy found in the rapid costume changes and the characters’ country accents and backwoods mannerisms. This version digs beneath the script’s surface, sacrificing some of the play’s humor to bring out the darker motives and tones that run beneath.

The set by C.J. Ohlandt is a flawless combination of church, radio station, kitchen, humane society, and more, all flowing from one to the other, so it’s hard to tell where the radio station leaves off and the kitchen begins.

Eventually, it dawns on the audience that everything isn’t right in Tuna. Maybe it’s the disturbing portrayal of Didi Snavely, owner of Didi’s Used Weapons, which features a guarantee that if the weapon you buy won’t kill, bring it back and they will give you one that will. Or perhaps it’s unsubtle radio announcements by Elmer Watkins, head of the local chapter of the K.K.K., who wants to make the town safe, “for the right kind of people.”

And the list goes on.

This is a refreshing look at Tuna. The elements have always been there, but it’s rare for a theater to choose the negative undertones when it’s easier to focus on the good-ole-boy nature of the show and the easy laughs. There is still a lot of laughter in this show, but those going in expecting the same rollicking fun as Footlight’s Tuna Christmas might be surprised. Book burners, bigots, murderers, and drunks — these comprise the hidden darkness of small town America.

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