It is easy for some snobby writer to wag a contemptuous finger at small-town America, portraying its denizens as one-dimensional dolts. Better writers find the heart in such a place, and poke fun at their characters without forgetting about their humanity. A Prairie Home Companion’s Lake Wobegon, The Office’s Scranton, and The Simpsons’ Springfield all come to mind as places whose residents we can both love and laugh at. In that vein we have Greater Tuna, a comedic play written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard that has become one of the most popular productions in the country since its debut in 1981.
The fictional Tuna perfectly captures the soul of the quintessential little Texan town. “If you can find someplace you like better than Tuna, move!” is the sign-off of its local radio hosts at OKKK. Old ladies perpetually donning house dresses and hair curlers hold meetings to “clean up” the dictionary, fire side-by-sides at dogs invading their chicken yards, and chide their aimless youngsters. An unctuous sheriff, forgetting that fat and gravity have rendered him nothing like the high school quarterback he still envisions himself as, fails to recognize the flirtations he lobs at the diner’s waitress as gross and uninvited. There may even have been a murder. You can almost hear the dobro music as “the third smallest town in Texas” goes about its day.
Greater Tuna has 20 characters, but only two actors. As someone who needs a drink after trying on pants for only ten minutes, I can certainly appreciate how great a feat it must be not only to change costumes countless times over the course of an hour and a half long production, but to get into a different character’s headspace with every new scene. “It’s a bold choice for our theater,” said Josh Johnson, executive director of Dakota Stage Ltd. “Pulling yourself out of the mindset of one character and getting into another’s, let alone dozens of times, is one of the most difficult things an actor can do, short of some intricately choreographed fight scene. If an actor in Greater Tuna hasn’t totally developed one of their characters, the whole play is going to fall flat, but when done well it adds so much to the play’s fast pacing.”
“On its surface, Greater Tuna is a comedy about a small town,” continued Josh, “so its humor is bound to resonate well in a place like Bismarck. Much of its humor comes from traditional values being played out to so extreme a degree that they become untenable. But on a deeper level, the show is a depiction of what people think small-town life ought to be like. Greater Tuna opens up a dialogue in a time when urban and rural populations are still starkly divided, yet when cultural rather than geographic differences largely define our communities. By shining a light on what makes people different, Greater Tuna underscores the things we all share in common. One of our great missions in the theater is to encourage empathy and relate unfamiliar experiences to our audience. I believe this play lets us do that perfectly.”
Dakota Stage Ltd is a non-profit community theater founded by a group of local actors in 1978. In its 42 years the repertory company has gone from playing in high school gymnasiums to their own, dedicated theater at 412 E Main Ave in Bismarck, and has brought the area such crowd favorites as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Glass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, No Exit, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To learn more about them and their production of Greater Tuna, please visit dakotastageltd.com.
See Greater Tuna at Dakota Stage Ltd!
Jan 23-25 @ 7:30pm
Jan 30-Feb 1 @ 7:30pm
Feb 2 @ 2:00pm
Get 25% off your tickets to Greater Tuna! Just enter GT_SDL when you order on dakotastageltd.com.
By David Scheller