Texas in Vienna

Williams’, Sears’, and Howard’s affectionate satire of US small town life, Greater Tuna made box office history in the 1980s

On The Town | Stephen Doyle | June 2011

Arriving at the International Theatre of Vienna on a Tuesday evening, I am greeted by soft golden light, the warm tones of polished wood furnishings, and a kind face at the ticket booth. There is a quiet intimacy, a calmness and confidence in the air. I am reminded of a speakeasy, some private and classy establishment for those "in the know" to enjoy the company of their peers. The play begins precisely on time, immediately after I take my seat, leaving me with the impression that the players were merely waiting for my arrival before commencing.

Greater Tuna, the first of a four-part saga, is something of an institution in American theater.  Written in 1981 about the fictional town of Tuna, Texas, this cult favorite was conceived of in Texas, performed first in Texas, and loved first by Texans. This is a parody of the Lone Star State that its proud citizens can laugh along with. If you are looking for refined- or even merely pertinent- social satire, prepare for disappointment. The social commentary is of a largely unexamined, childish sort. The writers, Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, don’t dig particularly deeply for their cultural insights, preferring instead to skim the scum off the top. Contained within is much of the sort of thing that I would have laughed smugly at from within the pseudo-liberal-minded cocoon of self-assuredness that was my late adolescence. As things are, accounts of drunken yokels reporting a UFO sighting and a schoolchild’s award-winning essay entitled, "Human Rights; Why Bother?" simply fall flat.

Now, having offered such a cold appraisal, here is where I must appear to contradict myself. As offensively inoffensive and tame as this play’s presentation of parochialism may be, it is simultaneously uproarious in an exceedingly dark fashion. How can this be? The social commentary, the insight into Texan small-town life, is dusty and lifeless.

However, the characterization – the portrayal of individuals struggling to steer their insignificant lives like rafts between the Scylla of meaningless oblivion and the Charybdis of utter damnation – is indeed where Greater Tuna succeeds in presenting something of the tragic beauty of existence to its audience. There is a distinct and poignant sense of each character as lonely monarch of his or her own trifling, circumscribed world. The true joy of Tuna, the side-splittingly funny, is in encountering its inhabitants in full display of their humanity, or lack thereof.

The first act introduces the town of Tuna, and – particularly the OKKK radio scenes – occasioned more eye rolling than anything else from this reviewer. The second act, now that introductions have been made, gives breath, blood, and soul to the denizens of Tuna – and that’s where the play really shines. There is a tangible warmth, a compassion to the way these characters are portrayed.

For this we owe the brilliance of the two actors – the only two, mind you – who portray the twenty characters that constitute the town of Tuna, TX. Jack Babb (who also directs Greater Tuna) and Jeff Sturgeon are, in all seriousness, the life and soul of this production. In their capable hands, the kitschiest of shtick is transformed into something very nearly profound. Also worthy of mention are the dressers- who seamlessly, silently pulled off some of the quickest and most impressive costume changes I’ve seen.

There truly is something here for everyone. This is a play that will entertain friends and family, young and old, boorish and refined. With such mass appeal, even the slack-jawed among us will find him or herself laughing – if only at the sight of men in drag. The material is often insipid, but there are moments of genius, and the performances are charmed. You may have seen Greater Tuna before, but you’ve never seen it better than this.

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