In an age when Lone Star state witticisms have been reduced to butchered sound bites gummed out by our fearless leader, it’s refreshing to see that true Texan panache at full flourish. And in such a bucolic enclave as Ojai, Greater Tuna’s study of small town Americana is not entirely irrelevant, especially when left up to such a capable trio of actors.
Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard sat down to capture the essence of Southern life in 1981 without resorting to any “Everything is bigger in Texas”-style jokes. Instead, theirs is a solid tale of the “third smallest town in Texas,” with rotating personalities. Burdened mothers, eccentric aunts and a well-meaning animal rights activist play out day-to-day existence, all but narrated by two irreverent radio personalities. Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, heavily embedded disc jockeys, prove that, in Tuna, “Your business is everyone’s business.”
For the Ojai Art Center Theater’s production, Michael Nader, a veteran small screen actor and Dynasty alum, joins David Matzke, a well-rounded thespian. Although Tuna is typically a two-person show, the addition of the talented Doug Friedlander doesn’t detract from the impressive rotation of 20-plus roles. Friedlander is at his pinnacle as Mrs. Bumiller when he gets animal rights activist Petey Fisk on the phone and dresses him down for sending an 11th dog home with her son.
While Michael Nader has a tendency to hold for applause, he shows admirable range — from the dryly aloof Struvie, to the sappily eager Petey Fisk, to the deliberately snobbish Vera Carp.
Dave Matzke brings a different kind of performance: His Texan fellas are of the more boisterous sort, and he captures the essence of Aunt Pearl – an eccentric old dame bordering on becoming homicidal – so ably that he goes beyond caricature. Even with the rampant gender-bending required for this production, the actors rarely go for cheap laughs.
The banter between the Matzke and Nader is believably small town Southern: the deejays provide a grounding counter-balance to the absurdity of Tuna’s obsessions. A call-in hour enables locals to air their grievances to an affable Matzke, who laughs, shakes his head and occasionally admonishes fellow Tuna residents.
It rather sneaks up on ya, but there is a plot. Judge Roscoe Buckner has died and everyone in Tuna has a reason to visit the man while he is lying in state. Some come to bewail long-ago love affairs, others to bemoan the time they spent at reform school at Buckner’s insistence. Meanwhile, Bertha Bumiller (Friedlander) worries over her ne’er do well son, her overweight teenage daughter and her kind, youngest son who is always accompanied by a bevy of dogs (supplied by Fisk).
While the characters are endearing, this isn’t an overly rosy profile meant to hold up small-town life as ideal, nor does it succumb to the predictable trap of chastising more metropolitan culture. The hooded Elmer Watkins breaks in periodically to talk about upcoming Klan meetings, where they’ll discuss “how to talk to” migrant farm workers. Mrs. Bumiller, sharp-tongued matron, shows her tunnel view of the world while telling a Hunter S. Thompson-style reporter about why she wants to ban various books from the school library. (She argues that Huckleberry Finn promotes cross-dressing and running around with “colored convicts.”) Mrs. Carp, though a laughably out-of-touch Southern belle, tries to forward her cause as a “smut-snatcher.”
Nor does the play disown these characters for their shortcomings; the majority of these people are salt-of-the-earth. They mean well. As Struvie and Wheelis might say, in a Vonnegut-esque repetition, “They do, they do, they do …”n