BY SANDY STAGGS
Those colorful and eccentric denizens of Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas, make their encore appearance on the Pelzer Auditorium stage this weekend as the Mill Town Players present the much-anticipated “A Tuna Christmas.”
MTP Artistic Director Will Ragland and longtime Upstate actor Shane Willimon reunite for this Southern yuletide sequel to their celebrated 2016 hit comedy “Greater Tuna,” the two-man show by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard, in which they transformed into 24 zany characters at break-redneck speed.
And Ragland assures that all of the best Tuna townspeople (and a couple of new ones) return in this yarn set on Christmas Eve when the Christmas phantom wreaks havoc on Tuna’s annual Christmas yard display contest.
In addition to the OKOK radio DJs Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, re-emerging in this story are the duo’s popular drag characters: Ragland’s Vera Carp, the pious leader of the Smut-Snatchers of the New Order and winner of the contest for 14 years running, and the gravelly-voiced gun-shop owner Didi Snavely; and Willimon’s Bertha Bumiller and the flagellant, elderly Aunt Pearl.
This return-to-Texas also re-unites the entire creative time behind the original production including director Jay Briggs, the new Director of Education for the Mill Town Players; artist Ryan Bradburn, whose amazing scenic design, props, costumes, and beehive wigs dazzled in the first production; and Lighting Designer Tony Penna.
“In the first play, we were in unchartered territory,” Ragland said. “We have already worked with these characters before and we have refined them.”
And perfecting the first story prepared the entire team, he added. “We were on the ball with the costumes this time,” he said. And some of Bradburn’s original set and costume infrastructure was still salvageable which saved time, Ragland said.
However, even with that advantage, Ragland found this show to be harder than the first “Tuna.”
“There is just so much more material and the technical stuff is more complex,” Ragland said, noting that the writers are not as generous to the actors in the sequel, resulting in some nearly impossible situations for backstage costume switches.
Fortunately, the stars have implicit faith in a trio of trusty dressers: the returning Donna Norman, as well as John King and Robert Jordan.
Ragland said that from the get-go he and Willimon definitely knew they wanted to collaborate on a two-play deal for the first two “Tuna” plays. And though the franchise also includes the less popular July 4th-themed “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas,” they currently have no plans to stage these comedies.
In addition, Willimon is taking a semi-retirement hiatus after this show, but Ragland is confident his friend of 20 years will return to the stage someday.
And seeing “Greater Tuna” is not a prerequisite to appreciating the small-town humor in “A Tuna Christmas.” Ragland himself said he actually saw “A Tuna Christmas” first.
“We are having a blast and there are some ridiculous one-liners in this show,” said Ragland. “And it’s a great way to escape the everyday pressures of Christmas.”
Parents, take note: although most plays at the Pelzer Auditorium are G-Rated, this show does contain a few choice words and very mild adult situations, so it may not be appropriate for small children.
“A Tuna Christmas” opens Friday, December 1 and runs through December 17, 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 www.milltownplayers.org/.