Wow! Get ready to be entertained and blown away by two men, with eighteen, yes eighteen, costume changes in a 105-minute play with lead mother figure Bertha Bumiller played by Anthony Whitaker in drag and Grant Drager playing most of the younger male and female characters (Arles, Didi, Stanley, Charlene, Jodi, Petey, Vera and Dixie). These two talents make for one hilarious and yet, at times, disturbing piece of theater now that Trump is President and the animal and human cruelty is perpetrated against each person who loves in the “the third smallest town in Texas”, a dump “where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never died.”
As announced on the local radio show the winning school essays include “Human Rights—Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry”. And so begins Deep in the Heart of Tuna, the latest in the “Tuna” series, currently running at Pride Arts Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
I was unaware that adapter Ed Howard and original author-performers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna) had revived this new play from pieces of the trilogy above though it didn't affect my understanding of the hard lives these people live while having little money to keep up with their neighbors. People wearing third generation hand me downs and living on a farm-like house where the youngest and most sensitive son has ten dogs and a few kitty cats literally following him to school and back until he can find them adoption homes.
I found the staging and lighting brilliant with audience members on both sides of the intimate theater performing space, putting us right in Bertha’s kitchen. Adding the finishing touch, are the costumes and wigs which are truly amazing and used to their ultimate. When I found that neither actor had a dresser to help them make these quick changes, I was even more impressed. Still knowing there were only two cast members, they played the men and women so touchingly and realistically funny, I could have sworn there was a cast of five people or more hidden in the wings.
The town of Tuna can sometimes be a scary place where the "smut snatchers" a local anti-porn group try to expose the dirty words in Dickens Christmas Carol, including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman", because you know, "Merry Gentlemen" is a little too close to gay gentleman in Tuna, Texas.
The smut snatchers are busy cutting apart the children’s' Christmas pageant, which they have worked on for months. It is eventually canceled by the local school official and local government because the school does not have the funds to pay its electric bill, despite pleas to let the children perform, in part because one child needs this performance to complete his reform school probation and leave town without a criminal record (for painting over street signs). The lights are shut off and the show does not go on. At the same time a Christmas Phantom is on the loose in the neighborhood destroying outdoor holiday displays. There’s a lot going on in this small town.
Anthony Whitaker's multilayered characterization of the mother figure as she struggles to make ends meet in this piece reminds me so much of my dear friend Louie Anderson's spectacular mother characterization in his new hit show "Baskets".
Grant Drager, a newcomer to the New American Folk Theatre ensemble, plays the rest of the male and female characters with mind blowing accuracy and such poignancy. For his outstanding work in this two-man show, Drager really is deserving of a Jeff Award, as well as Whitaker.
Though many of the characters are run-of-the-mill, low-income Southern folks with seemingly good hearts, at times, the extreme stereotype Texas hard core right wingers are also demonstrated in the play. It's mind boggling that the small-mindedness of the latter mentioned characters of this tiny town exist in real life, boasting about and bringing forth soul crushing ideas along with anti-gay sentiments and anti-animal rights, i.e. and "Tuna" takes a few good shots. A great line that represents that type of mentality in this play is when Didi, who runs the local gun shop for her mother, says, "If we don't have a gun (or poison) to kill what you want, that thing is supernatural!" This show can make great but serious fun of that particular group on a few occasions though it mainly celebrates small town warmth, kindness and simplicity. Though "Tuna" often pokes fun of small town life in the South, it is done with affection, actually endearing us to several of the characters even more so.
This satire of rural life is highly recommended for two of the most versatile and thought provoking performances in this play about a dysfunctional family and the small town problems that arise. Directed by Derek Van Barham, New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna is being performed at Pride Arts Center through March 5th. For show information or tickets, click here. Y'all hurry now!