Ah, those lovable hicks from Tuna, Texas: Didi the chain-smokin’ ammo shop lady, Thurston and Arles the slowpoke radio hosts on OKKK, and cackling old Aunt Pearl who sling-shots bluejays.
Since the two-man play “Greater Tuna” was born three decades ago it’s become a community theater staple. This month, Kitsap County’s fringe Changing Scene Theatre Northwest takes on “A Tuna Christmas” in the basement of new Tacoma Musical Playhouse venue The Spire.
The biggest change? All those 22 drawlin’ characters are played by two women — which definitely adds a new dramatic layer.
First, the good news. Despite being written with the cross-dressing comedy that comes from two men flinging feather boas and cowgirl skirts around the stage, a two-gal version of “A Tuna Christmas” still has plenty of laughs. Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson and Katelyn Hoffman, despite quite a few dropped lines on opening night, occupy their array of characters like old-timers at a bar, with no Texas stereotype left unturned.
Ferguson’s main role is the long-suffering housewife Bertha Bumiller, who gets both a ditzy ridiculousness and a deeper sorrow felt by all women who give up dreams to care for others. But Ferguson also shines as the scheming Aunt Pearl, the crotch-grabbing Sheriff Givens and most of the plaid-shirt, thick-as-a-brick men of Tuna.
Hoffman is less secure but brings a certain grace to Tuna’s softer characters such as the hippie renegade teen Stanley and his whining sister Charlene, lisping Petey the animal rescuer, and doddery Dixie Deberry, with thick round glasses and a wicked old-lady agenda. Together the pair are larger than life as Helen and Inita, the flirty diner waitresses who steal the town’s annual Front Yard Christmas Decoration prize from Vera Carp (Hoffmann), whose blonde wig is even more outrageous than her snarky white superiority.
Now the bad news: The Spire’s basement feels like a 1950s school hall, without the heating. The low-budget set (Christmas wrap and a Goodwill table) doesn’t help the amateur feel, and many of the costume changes aren’t as quick as they should be, leaving the remaining actor fussing with a sad little Christmas tree prop for much longer than anyone wants.
And then there’s the problem of bringing a 1980s Texas town into the present. Which phone do you use? Which political reference? And is it ever OK to make fun of midget actors? (Answer: No.) Then there’s the whole awkwardness of laughing at ignorant, racist, homophobic Southern Republicans, given who just won the national election.
But if you can move past all that to the sheer fun of watching two women sashay through 22 characters like a cowboy at a barbecue buffet, then y’all will have a mighty fine time at “A Tuna Christmas.”