REVIEW: “Greater Tuna” at the Ghent Playhouse

by Macey Levin

Greater Tuna is the first of four plays about the third smallest town in Texas.  It was first performed in 1981 in Austin, Texas, and arrived Off-Broadway in 1982.  Since then it has played literally all over the country and is now at The Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York.  But maybe it should retire.

Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, using two actors to portray nineteen characters, it is filled with sophomoric humor, an occasional funny line and several anachronisms… references to returning vets from Viet Nam, rotary wall phones and others.  It follows a day in the life of Tuna, Texas, introducing us to a nerdy but dedicated PETA representative, a feckless sheriff, an unctuous clergyman, and other characters of uncertain mental and/or social capacity.

An extended focus is on the Bumillers, a highly dysfunctional family.  Stanley, just out of reform school, stands over the body of a judge he has murdered and explains to the corpse how he did it; Charlene is a pathetic and depressed high school senior whose life’s aspiration is to be a cheerleader; Jody, the youngest, has gathered eight dogs that follow him wherever he goes.  Bertha the mother shouldn’t be a mother and the father Hank is virtually a non-existent element in the household.

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Much of the information about the day’s events are announced by two radio personalities, Thurston Wheelis and Arles Strovie, who have a number of the funnier lines.  But for a show that claims a laugh-a-minute there are several lengthy stretches where humor is absent and superficial drama tries to rear its head.

The two-man cast, Don Dolan and Kevin Kilb, work earnestly to give life to the many characters they portray.  Some work; some don’t.  They each play people of different genders and age.  To lend veracity to their characterizations they use stereotypical gestures and posturing.  Given the number of roles they have to fulfill, this is an understandable method to identify the various personalities.  It is a feat to stage a show that requires its company to institute character and costume changes in a matter of seconds.  (The offstage dressers do yeoman’s work.) With this as an inherent obstacle Director Brian Wagner has kept the play moving at a mostly comfortable pace allowing his actors to milk some situations for whatever laughs the scene may have and to be as dramatic as the time-worn script allows.

Sam Reilly’s set is flexible as it has to represent multiple locations on a relatively small stage, and Joanne Maurer’s costumes immediately identify the personality of the many characters.  Monk Schane-Lydon’s sound design utilizes many popular recordings from the eighties and earlier to help set the mood and time of the show.

Evidently, Greater Tuna is something of a cult classic.  If you want to experience this, you can get a taste of its celebrity in Ghent.

Greater Tuna by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard; Directed by Brian Wagner; Cast:  Don Dolan (Thurston Wheerlis, et al) Kevin Kilb (Arles Struvie et al); Scene design: Sam Reilly; Costume design: Joanne Maurer; Lighting design: Isabel Filkins; Sound design: Monk Schane-Lydon; Running Time: One hour-forty-five minutes; one intermission; The Ghent Playhouse, Ghent, NY; From 10/6/17; closing 10/22/17

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