A taste of Tuna at Christmas

by Amy Kingsley

To find Tuna, Texas on a map, direct your finger to the lonely gap of Interstate 35 between Cotulla and Artesia Wells. That’s down the road from San Antonio, for those of you unfamiliar with the geography of South Texas.

Come Christmastime, you can find Tuna, Texas – the fictional version of it – in almost every playhouse this side of the Mason-Dixon. That includes the Broach Theatre, where the 22 residents who populate A Tuna Christmas will spend the next two weekends.

Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, is a place distinguished by its per-capita eccentricities. It’s a sequel, scripted by Texans Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, who put Greater Tuna on the theatrical map in 1985.

The founders of the Broach Theatre, Hall Parrish and Stephen Gee, each tackle some 11 characters during the play’s duration. The two actors introduce the audience to the quirky rhythms of Tuna society with an expository radio broadcast starring mini-bottle guzzler Arles Struvie and his sidekick, Thurston Wheelis.

Gee plays Struvie, Petey Fisk, Didi Snavely and Vera Carp, among others. His onstage cohort plays the other lights of Tuna society, including Wheelis, Sheriff Givens, Aunt Pearl Burris and our heroine, Bertha Bumiller.

“We produced this play for the first time in 1996,” said director Deborah Kintzing. “And over the years, we haven’t really changed things, but the characters have just gotten richer.”

Kintzing, Gee and Parrish all participated in the original production, and in the three that have followed. And they have managed to retain many of the backstage crew – critical in a show with two actors, 22 characters and dozens of quick changes.

Tickets for this year’s two-week run sold out in 48 hours. The Broach Theatre announced last week that it would extend the production an extra week. Tuna last visited Greensboro in 2002, a gap long enough to stir anticipation for its return this year.

“It was popular before,” said Parrish. “But I don’t think we’ve ever sold it out before it opened.”

Friday’s sold out house includes at least a handful of audience members with enough Tuna familiarity to anticipate several of the show’s many punch lines. It is not uncommon, Kintzing says, for repeat viewers to host Tuna parties before performances.

“It’s scary to say,” Kintzing says, “but I’d guess that every person in this audience has at least one person that they know on that stage.”

After the performance, Parrish and Gee relax under the houselights cradling cups of wine.

“The challenge is in developing characters that are different from each other,” Parrish said, “but that are still honest.”

Gee struggled to come up with a character for Dixie Deberry.

“When I got to her,” he says, “I decided that I just didn’t have another woman in me.”

He incorporated a palsy to distinguish Deberry from his other female characters.

Next to dramatic challenges, mastering the technical part – navigating the snap-second quick changes and entrances – is relatively painless, they say.

“The changing,” Parrish says, “that’s scary at first, but you get used to it.”

Both the actors have more than a passing familiarity with the kinds of small-town characters featured in A Tuna Christmas. Gee grew up in eastern Kentucky, “on the wrong side of Appalachia,” as Parrish puts it. And his costar grew up in Brevard, NC, a small town in the mountains that’s home to a college and a renowned music festival.

So they know about the craziness of small town life, and its joys. Their audience returns not just for the Klan jokes and sheep entendres, but also to cheer for Bertha, Arles, Stanley and the other Tuna outcasts.

“I think the audience just loves the relationships that form onstage,” Gee says.

“I think they love that Stanley and his aunt are kinds of kindred spirits,” Parrish adds.

“There’s a lot of loneliness,” Kintzing says. “I think it’s really valuable to watch that last scene and see that there’s a chance for love for some of these characters.”

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