Greater Tuna

People say that things are bigger in Texas. Maybe even box-office receipts. Maybe even by extension.

The Foothill Theatre Company of Nevada City certainly found this out in 1998, when they staged Greater Tuna, the popular comedy set in Tuna, reputedly the third-smallest town in Texas, “where the Lions Club is too liberal, and Patsy Cline never died.”

Greater Tuna is by now an institution and a franchise. The play originated more than 20 years ago as a Texas party skit based on a political cartoon. It developed into a two-actor play involving around 20 characters, male and female, of all ages. There are numerous costume changes all along the way.

The show’s creators—actors Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and director Ed Howard—took the show on tour, doing well in San Francisco, Atlanta and ultimately New York. By 1985, Greater Tuna was being produced all over the country by groups ranging from professional theater companies to high-school drama classes.

In the Foothill Theatre Company’s production this summer, actor Gary Wright plays five grown men, two women, two teenagers (a boy and a girl) and a toddler. David Silberman, a veteran of many past productions by the Sacramento Theatre Company, plays seven adult men, including a Klansman, a sheriff, a drunk, and a preacher, plus two “feisty old women, and a small shrill dog named Yippy.”

The multiple comic roles are an abrupt shift for Wright, who most recently played the tragic role of frontiersman Meriwether Lewis in Foothill’s production Grinder’s Stand. Wright says that his favorite character in Tuna is the deep-voiced woman who owns Didi’s Used Weapons, “not because of her character, but because her muumuu is cool and easy to slip into and out of quickly.” But, as Wright admits, “I can relate on some level with all of these people. There’s just something fundamentally true about them. The great thing about this script is that it mercilessly lampoons these folks, but at the same time, it’s full of compassion for them, too.”

A multi-character play like Tuna, Wright acknowledges, “is going to emphasize an actor’s technical skills—meaning how well you hit your marks, change your clothes, create the desired effect, change clothes again and make the next entrance on time.”

Regarding the female roles, done by men, Wright says he looks to neither Milton Berle or Monty Python as a role model. “I think the Kids in the Hall are much better female impersonators. … They’re not a drag act; they’re actors playing real women. It’s not funny because they’re men in women’s clothes. It’s funny because the women they’re playing are funny.” That includes a Tuna woman who’s gained weight, but still tries to squeeze into her existing wardrobe. “I have several pairs of pants that I can’t get into,” Wright says. “It’s funny, but there’s a pathos to it as well, as anyone who’s ever had a weight problem can attest.”

Wright has never lived in Texas, though he has taken a train from California across the breadth of the Lone Star State en route to New Orleans. “Texas was most of the trip … all I remember about the scenery is that it made me want to drink—so I did.”

But David Silberman, who appears opposite Wright in Foothill’s Greater Tuna, grew up in Texas. Regarding the play’s characters, Silberman says, “I have met most of them, am related to some of them, and, God, help me, I’m afraid I might be close to being a couple of them myself.”

“Being a kid in Texas was pretty much like being a kid anywhere in the USA, with just a few little exceptions,” he adds. “First, we took one year of American history in school, and, by God, two years of Texas history. Second, we attended high-school football games with a near religious fervor, bordering on insanity. Third, while kids in other states were playing ‘Cops and Robbers’ or ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ we were, of course, playing ‘The Alamo.’ “