Review: Wayside’s ‘Tuna’ offers side of laughs

By Linda Ash — lash@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN — I felt like I was “deep in the heart of Texas” on Sunday during Wayside Theatre’s final opening night of its 50th season. The play, “Greater Tuna,” offers a deliciously satirical look at one day in the life of the 20-some residents of the teeny, tiny fictional town of Tuna, Texas.

While sitting there watching the show, scrunched up in my fourth-row, middle of the row seat in an old Middletown theater, it occurred to me that I have actually met people who reminded me of some of these crazy Tuna inhabitants. I understand the “Tuna” characters were created to be over-the-top outrageous to elicit laughs, but honestly, I’ve met some of these people in the small southern towns I’ve passed through.

Bertha Bumiller, a member of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order, hell-bent on keeping “Roots,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “Romeo and Juliet” out of the Tuna High School library, could have been one of my neighbors back when I was growing up in Ohio’s Mentor Headlands — a place well-known for its large population of West Virginia and Tennessee transplants. When I did a stint at a Louisiana newspaper in the 1980s, I met a lot of men like Klansman Elmer Watkins, who clumped Neanderthal-like out onto the stage Sunday night to invite us to the local meetin’.

My favorite characters were Pearl Burras and Petey Fisk. Big butt Pearl, who enjoyed giving “bitter pills” to dogs that strayed into her yard, pulled a burst of laughter out of me when she started swinging her hips and belted out the “Banana Boat Song” while paying her last respects to a judge in Tuna’s funeral parlor. And I found myself looking forward to the next silly thing that came out of sweet Petey’s mouth during his numerous appearances on stage. Then there was tough-talking, cigarette-smoking Didi Snavely — yep, I’ve met her, too.

“Greater Tuna” reminds me of the old “Carol Burnett Show.” I recall many times Harvey Korman and Tim Conway not being able to NOT to laugh at each other during their skits, so I am just amazed that “Tuna’s” actors Eddie Staver III and Greg Pragel could stare at each other with their noses just an inch apart in one scene as Sheriff Givens and reform school graduate Stanley Bumiller and not crack up.

I found this play fun — more so in the second half because it took me a while to figure out what was happening. Laughter was louder and more frequent after the intermission as the audience warmed up to the 20-some characters played by Staver and Pragel, who, with the help of their backstage dressers, have turned quick costume changes into an art form.

The Sears Roebuck-like dresses were a hoot. I especially enjoyed Pragel’s portrayal of Didi in her turban and big glasses, but was a bit worried that Staver would break an ankle in his dainty feathered heels while in character as Bertha (nice legs, Eddie!)

To recap — it’s a fun, quirky two-man play that offers funny one-liners, men in drag and southern-fried humor on a platter.

• “Greater Tuna”
• By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard
• Directed by Warner Crocker
• Continuing at Wayside Theatre through April 8. Box office phone number: 869-1776.