‘Greater Tuna’: Two actors, twenty characters and lots of laughs

In the tiny Texas town of Tuna, the local low-wattage radio station broadcasts gossip instead of news. And what is news anyway but funny and tragic stories about human beings?
Middlebury Actors Workshop’s new summer production showcases two expert performers as they enact the lives that make up the town. MAW veterans Harry McEnerny and Steve Small play Tuna’s entire population, 10 characters each, male and female, young and old, narrow-minded and big-hearted by turns.
There isn’t much plot here. Stanley Bumiller tries to murder the town’s hanging judge, but botches the job. His sister Charlene fails for the seventh time to make the cheerleading squad. Their brother Jody collects a pack of stray dogs, while another neighbor poisons them to protect her flock of chickens. How do actors keep so many roles distinct and interesting? Small says he starts with a voice, then adds in a physical body. His Sheriff Givens, for example, has a distinctive blustering stammer, and when he pulls an imaginary gun on prisoner Stanley Bumiller, he is left-handed. One of McEnerny’s favorites is animal rescuer Petey Fisk, so compassionate that he has nightmares all through the annual ordeal of hunting season. “He has a big heart,” says the actor. “His heart is bigger than mine.”
Each character has his or her own distinctive voice, ranging from southern drawl to Texas twang and everything in between. McEnerny, born in New Orleans and raised in Tennessee, comes by his Southern accent honestly, but also plays Phinas Blye, a carpetbagger from Indiana who can never get himself elected to Greater Tuna’s town council. He envisions Blye as a fast-talking energetic man, always moving at top speed. He also plays Chad Hartford, a reporter sent from a Houston paper to investigate the town’s new schoolbook censorship committee. Chad may be a Texan, but he makes it clear that he’s superior to these bigoted small-town bumpkins.
Each character also needed a distinctive costume and the ability to get into them quickly. Costume designer Angela Brande, like McEnerny a theater professor at Castleton State College, created the costumes, then fine-tuned them for meticulous choreography of costume changes, with each off-and-on maneuver optimized and timed to the second. In the final week of rehearsals she altered several costumes to make the quick-changes go smoothly.
Brande has worked with director Melissa Lourie, McEnerny and Small before, and in “Greater Tuna” has been an integral part of character development. As rehearsals progressed, one of McEnerny’s characters, Didi Snavely of Didi’s Used Weapons (“Guaranteed to Kill!”), began to spark some romantic chemistry with Small’s folksy radio host Thurston Wheelis, and her costume evolved to emphasize her seductiveness.
With this production of “Greater Tuna,” MAW and Lourie once again show why live theater endures. The physical presence of actors, interacting with each other and the audience, is a thing in itself, irreplaceable by anything that happens on any screen, large or small.
“GREATER TUNA” A play by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, produced by Middlebury Actors Workshop and directed by Melissa Lourie. It will be performed at Addison Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at the Hannaford Career Center, July 23-26 and July 30-Aug. 2; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. The Hannaford Career Center’s A.R.T. is at 51 Charles St., Middlebury. Tickets are $22, call Town Hall Theater 382-9222 or visit townhalltheater.org.

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