SALT LAKE CITY — Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, is a comedic gem. The play is a two-man tour de force that explores one day in the life of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas. And as produced by Wasatch Theater Company at Rose Wagner Studio Theater, is a great night of theater.
The action begins, as every day in Tuna does, with Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis broadcasting from the 275-watt station OKKK. That is, when they remember to turn the transmitter on. From that point on we are treated to 20 of the most eccentric characters that reside in Tuna. From Bertha Bumiller, a card carrying member of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order, to Petey Fisk, devoted employee of the Greater Tuna Humane Society, and Didi Snavely, owner of Didi’s Used Weapons, whose motto is “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal,” we see a snapshot of small town life in the south.
To give a thorough plot synopsis is to give away too many of the gems of the play. The residents of Tuna are an odd mix of prejudices and preconceptions. However, for someone who grew up in a small town, they ring surprisingly true. Small towns are an interesting breeding ground for gossip, where everyone knows the business of everyone else in town. The authors capture this “backyard network” of family histories in great detail. I have seen in other reviews of this play from other productions that some are put off by the “racial” humor. Bertha at one point outlines the books she would like removed from the high school library including Roots because it “doesn’t properly represent the other side of slavery.” At face value it may seem that this is a cheap joke, but I can say from experience that there are people who think this way. And they are around us to this day.
The two actors who portray all these characters are Charles Lynn Frost and John Rowland. They both do a wonderful job in moving from character to character with great skill. Regardless of age or gender, they made the transition quite seamlessly. Mr. Frost was especially wonderful in his portrayal of Bertha Bumiller and her aunt Pearl Burras. His cliché-spouting Reverend Spikes was also a highlight of the evening. He was able to truly convey individuality in the 10 characters he played. John Rowland did an equally fine job in his 10 characters, with the dopey, but well-meaning Petey Fisk and town snob Vera Carp being the standouts of his lot.
Sound design by Matt Heider was excellent and really set the mood with very appropriate music used before curtain, during intermission as well as throughout the play. Costume design by Linda Eyring was mostly very strong. The characters were all well defined and easily distinguished. Lighting design by Megan Crivello was well-intentioned, but on opening night was a bit erratic, with cues coming at what seemed to be the wrong timing.
The set by Kit Anderson was essentially an open stage with some stools, counters and tables, but gave no real “off-stage” area hidden from the audience. And this is where my biggest complaint of the show occurs. I realize that the studio theater at Rose Wagner is a small venue. It presents a very intimate experience for theater, and it works well for Greater Tuna. But I would have had the costume changes occur off stage. I realize that it was most likely a very conscious decision by director Sallie Cooper to have this happen, but I found myself watching the costume changes and not concentrating on the action of the play. Also, I think because this was opening night, many of the costume changes were occurring as the characters were entering for their lines. I’m sure this will tighten as the run progresses.
The other slight surprise to me was how dark a few of the characters and plot lines turned out to be. Pearl and her “bitter-pills” and the revelation of the true nature of the death of the local judge were darker than I would have suspected, but still work in the larger context of a small town. These few criticisms are minor, though, when compared to the joyous abandon that Mr. Frost and Mr. Rowland exude throughout the show. It was a joy to behold.