Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 27, 2009

Greater Tuna

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 31, 2009
by R.E. Smith

"Greater Tuna" is a show built for actors and those who appreciate the craft. The action takes place in the third smallest town in Texas where various life stories play out and intertwine. Brian Mathis and Neal Mayer did yeoman's work portraying 21 citizens of Tuna, Texas. Each brought distinctive voice and body language to both male and female characters. Mayer's humane-society worker Petey Fisk was an audience favorite, with his appeals to adopt stray dogs and save homeless ducks. Mathis' embodiment of put upon housewife Bertha Bumiller earned knowing smiles and sympathy. Through use of physical subtleties and facial expressions, each performer brought a measure of humanity to bucolic stereotypes. The costume changes were swift, impressive and never distracting, sometimes achieving great results with just an adjustment of a wig and a shirt.

Advanced press proclaimed that the show was a "comical tour de force" and "side-splitting," but while the characterizations were broad, the humor was subdued. Truth be told, many people left during intermission. There were some amusing vignettes, but no belly laughs. A macabre pall hung over much of the action and those who stayed to Act II were faced with more disturbingly uncomfortable revelations. Many seemed to come expecting Jeff Foxworthy redneck humor and were rightly thrown off by the Faulkner Southern gothic that was presented instead.

A number of factors may have contributed to the displeasure. The producer of the show did warn us to dismiss all notions of political correctness, but the book is becoming dated. Many of the topics (sharecroppers, Agent Orange) are just not that funny anymore or foreign to the current generation. The actors also seemed to be held back by the direction. From the opening music, to the entrances and exits, to the delivery of punch lines seemed to be drawn out. Maybe this was done to suggest the pace of life on a late summer day in Texas, but when comedy and drama are both delivered at the same pace it leaves the audience more time to notice what they don't like. It is to the actors' credit that the most pleasant aspect of the evening comes from the appreciation of two artists working hard to make difficult material palatable.