Aunt Pearl, the Rev. Spikes, Petey Fisk, Bertha Bumiller and her troubled teenage twins. We know these people. And we know where they live right here in small-town America.
Along with 14 other people, all of the above appear in Greater Tuna, a funny and edgy comedy about American foibles, dreams and darkness. The two-actor, multiple character play has been around for a generation, but it is evergreen especially in capable hands.
The Durango Arts Center will open Tuna on Friday and run weekends through Sept. 10. Directed by Terry Swan, Tuna features two talented local actors, Miles Batchelder and Geoff Johnson, playing 10 parts each.
Two-actor plays like Tuna or Stones in His Pockets, another contemporary comedy with multiple roles and a shadow fringe, present a human panorama in a unique manner. The actors play a variety of roles men, women, children and a dog or two. A big part of the fun is seeing each character emerge, take on a persona, interact with another character and return again later to advance the story.
At a rehearsal last week, Batchelder and Johnson skillfully brought their characters to life with a variety of techniques: posture, carriage, gait, gestures, tone, pitch and vocal production. Believable in rehearsal clothes, Batchelder and Johnson could perform Tuna without elaborate costuming. But costume changes are also part of the fun.
After the rehearsal, I caught a glimpse. Costumer Jane Gould had her two-man team suit up one by one and parade all 20 characters across the stage for the technical crew and a class from one of the DACs summer arts programs. The actors transformation was sometimes astonishing and often hilarious, particularly the roles that cross gender and age lines, not to mention weight boundaries.
With pearls, padding and a flowered house dress, Aunt Pearl (Johnson) appeared with her pocketbook in hand ready to attend Judge Buckners funeral. For Batchelders part, he manifested innocence then revenge with the sweet-smarmy Bumiller twins dressed first in bouncy pink-and-white then black leather.
The writing for Tuna is sharp and well-observed. The comedy bears a resemblance to its older Welsh cousin, Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood. Written in the early 1950s, it tells the story of a fishing village by moving from dawn to dusk.
An acting ensemble of six or more players brings to life a whole village. Milk Wood contains gossiping wives, drunken husbands, taunting children and the lonely old. Another literary cousin is Garrison Keillors Lake Woebegone, the make-believe town in Minnesota, where human ambition and ineptitude, folly and failure flower.
Like these fictional cousins, Tuna focuses on a circle of intertwined characters to illuminate small-town life. Their relationships and ongoing dilemmas drive the drama forward.
If youve seen Tuna before, see it again. Ive seen it twice. Not long ago, I saw a weak amateur production rush by with actors oblivious to the importance of a pause and tone deaf to the dark moments. Years ago, I saw a slick professional production in which the actors unfortunately kept mugging the audience. Thats not in the script and shouldnt be.
Under Swans direction, the DAC production is well-paced and encourages the characters to breathe. It doesnt paper over casual bigotry, marital discord or difficult children.
To apply a Jungian cliché, comedy is enhanced when it reveals its shadow side. This American play deserves that kind of treatment and gets it at DAC.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durango herald.com.