Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The world becomes smaller and more homogeneous every day, with the far reach of media and the ubiquity of chain restaurants and big-box stores, and yet: rural Texas. For a Michigan crowd, much of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard's Greater Tuna may feel as remote as an alien race that doesn't let their pet dogs in the house. But for all the idiosyncratic, folksy humor in Williamston Theatre's production, directed by Tony Caselli, there's little condescension; the best mockery comes from a place of love, and the affection inherent in this text translates.

From sunup to sundown, the play covers a representative day in Tuna, Texas, as just two actors (Aral Gribble and Wayne David Parker) adjust voices, statures, and costumes to play nearly a dozen roles each. The title is derived from the listening area of local radio station OKKK (and its hosts, delivering all the news it's fit to chatter about), whose daily programming provides a loose thematic framework and effective transitions. The diminutiveness of a city home to fewer than 500 is evident in Donald Robert Fox's forced-perspective set, which makes the main downtown intersection look like the meagerest hub ever created. Lighting design by Daniel C. Walker keeps up with the changing places and focal points, discerning brief radio spots and other one-off material from the lingering fuller scenes. Although Karen Kangas-Preston's surprisingly thorough quick-change costumes are a useful visual aid to the character changes (and a wealth of potential for wardrobe malfunctions), props by Erin Roth and sound design are intentionally scarce; sound effects frequently originate in the actors' own mouths, and abundant use of pantomime keeps the stage free of clutter. In Tuna, it's a simple existence, and its residents know what's most important: family, church, rivalries, firearms, socially ingrained racism, and their own brand of justice.

Parker particularly shines in a duo of female roles, as concerned parent Bertha Bumiller and her aunt, cantankerous Pearl Burras; both have a fussbudgety disposition, although one seems powerless to help herself or her children, whereas the other gleefully takes matters into her own hands. He lends such attention to each party, it's difficult to remember that underneath the rough-edged KKK chapter leader is the same person as the enthusiastic cliché-borrowing preacher or the rollicking town drunk. Whereas Parker's major characters are sustained over long scenes, Gribble's pop in and out to both perpetuate and connect the various stories, from pitiful Humane Society advocate Petey Fisk to headstrong weapons seller Didi Snavely to reform school failure Stanley Bumiller. Dimwitted, menacing, earnest, superior: it's an impressive range to be played this strong at all points, and with such frequent shifts. The actors have a decent camaraderie together, but the real focus of the show is the individual characters and how they fit into the larger picture.

The playwrights don't shy away from factors of rural Southern life more nefarious than vigilante censorship; the fictitious Texas town is shown warts and all. It's not just because its two performers are white that the town is blindingly so — in fact, an outsider interviewing Bertha about her volunteer work stealing objectionable books from libraries is taken aback by her issues with Huckleberry Finn. Ideologies are similarly one-sided, so conservative that most conservatives would consider them extreme. The grudges are dance-on-your-grave epic; the problems are aired on the radio for the whole town to hear. Still, these views, however they may align or clash with those of the artists involved, are never winked at or propped up for ridicule. Although the characters themselves are sometimes imbecilic, their values aren't editorialized.

Above all the social whatnot and regional whatever, Greater Tuna and its characters are first and foremost exceptionally funny. Caselli, Gribble, and Parker infuse the play's two acts with comic moments both overt and sly, making mirth of everyday and exceptional occurrences alike. Were the characters merely cartoonish, the production couldn't be nearly as humorous as it is with these varied, well-formed personas enjoying the comforts and patterns of small-town life.


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