REVIEW: Mill Town Players Get Laughs-A-Plenty in ‘Greater Tuna’

Shane Willimon and Will Ragland star in "Greater Tuna."
Shane Willimon and Will Ragland star in “Greater Tuna.” Photo by Escobar Photography



“Greater Tuna” is a peachy tour-de-force display of sketch comedy with a cornucopia of gags that both celebrates and lampoons Southern living.

BY SANDY STAGGS

DRAMA CRITIC

Turn up that dial and tune it to station OKKK for the latest weather predictions, farm reports and offbeat local news from the third smallest town in Texas. Or just catch some of its eclectic citizens in person in the hilarious Southern comedy “Greater Tuna” at the Pelzer Auditorium.

These 20 peculiar characters come in all sizes, shapes, ages, genders and degrees of class in this Mill Town Players send-up of small town morals and mores. But the joke is that they are all embodied by only two actors, Shane Willimon and Will Ragland.

This 1982 play written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard that spawned three  sequels — “A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas” — is a staple of community theatre and a witty, poignant satire of a day in a rural town, not unlike the municipality of Pelzer, where no one and no topic is unscathed.

The authors poke gentle digs at the gun-carrying and Bible-toting nature of Southerners, as well our region’s patchy record of diversity with quips like an invitation directed to Tuna’s few African-Americans to audition for the “chorus” of a local production of “My Fair Lady.”.

While some characters in this tangy fish fry only make cameos, others re-emerge such as local radio DJs Thurston Wheelis (Willimon) and Arles Struvie (Ragland in a getup that beckons Grandpa Jones from “Hee Haw”). Their broadcasts taut the popular (or infamous) locals who appear later in the script such as the town drunk R.R. Snavely (Willimon) and his chain-smoking gravelly-voiced wife, Didi (Ragland), one of the station’s sponsors and owner of  Didi’s Used Weapons whose business motto is, “If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal.”

With lightning-speed costume changes aided backstage by a couple of trusty dressers (Aaron Pennington and Donna Norman), audiences never know who is going to enter next or from where, adding a charming mystique to the frenetic pacing of the show.

Some of the quirky male citizens of Tuna are Petey Fisk (Ragland) of the Greater Tuna Humane Society, the Reverend Spikes (Willimon in a Jerry Falwell/Boss Hog white suit and Vegas Elvis wig and sideburns) and the redneck juvenile delinquent Stanley Bumiller (Ragland).

But of course, in the grand tradition of Milton Berle and Benny Hill, the female characters are always the favorites with audiences.

Willimon is a genuine hoot as the plus-sized Bertha Bumiller (mother of Stanley and his two siblings) in a beehive wig and frock that immediately conjures Divine’s matronly look from “Hairspray.” And as the flagellant, elderly Aunt Pearl, Willimon packs the droopiest bosom since Carol Burnett’s spoof of Gloria Swanson from “Sunset Boulevard.”

But one of the most delightful characters is Ragland’s Vera Carp, the pious society queen  and a leader of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order, whose primary aim is to ban morally-offensive library books like “Huckleberry Finn” and censure seemingly innocuous words from school dictionaries such as “nuts.” Ragland’s rich portrayal in a Texan twang and cat eye glasses — and his mispronunciation of Spanish phrases —  splendidly evokes Dana Carvey’s sarcastic Church Lady.

And in a pleasant stroke of art imitating life, Ragland (a member of Pelzer’s Town Council) briefly plays Phinas Blye, Tuna’s perpetual political candidate for City Council, in a spot-on parody of Bernie Sanders (or was it Larry David?).

Ragland and Willimon are both known and treasured comedic commodities in the Upstate and deliver marvelously-nuanced and distinct characterizations for each role.  The duo moves seamlessly between these simple folks who are sure to remind you of some Southerners you may have met growing up here, or perhaps even some of your current neighbors or kinfolk.

This side-splitting comedy is craftily directed by Jay Briggs with Pennington also serving as assistant director. Ryan Bradburn designed both the colorful country set and the many superb costumes and wigs.

Willimon also created the sound design that blends country music by artists such as Loretta Lynn and Jerry Reed with clever, intermittent pre-recorded radio broadcasts during the brief costume changes, as well as melancholy organ accompaniment for the funeral scene.

Tony Penna is lighting designer, Paula Forbes is Stage Manager and the Scenic Artist is Abby Brown. Libby Crews and Morgan Freeman are on lights and Stephanie Ibbotson is on the sound board.

“Greater Tuna” runs through June 12, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit http://www.milltownplayers.org/.

“Oklahoma” is next up on the Pelzer stage in July and season tickets are now available for the Mill Town Player’s third season which includes John Steinbeck’s play “Of Mice and Men” and five musicals: Katie Rockwell’s reprisal in “Always…Patsy Cline” in September, “Christmas in Dixie,” the doo-wop “Forever Plaid,” “Smoke on the Mountain” and “Bye Bye Birdie.

 

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