Welcome to Tuna, Texas.
More exactly, “A Tuna Christmas.”
Scheduled to stage on Nov. 30 at Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville, Tenn., the comedy revolves around a motley set of characters in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas.
Actors Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne play all 22 characters in a play that brings the audience on board too.
“Gosh, it’s so funny,” said Holbrook by phone recently from Stone Mountain, Ga. “We start the show around the radio studio. We say, ‘Merry Christmas, Tuna,’ and we bring the audience in.”
Playwrights Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams wrote “A Tuna Christmas” in 1989 as a sequel to 1981’s “Greater Tuna.” The general story revolves around a Christmas yard display contest, which has been won 14 times in a row by town snob Vera Carp. Turmoil brews when a Christmas phantom strikes – one of many subplots within the play.
A slew of colorful characters emerge. From Joe Bob Lipsey to Didi Snavely (owner of Didi’s Used Weapons and wife of UFO hunter R.R. Snavely), many are Southern slices of the ridiculous.
“These characters are bigger than life, and I think people know these people,” Holbrook said. “You really get to know these people pretty quickly. And it’s funny. It’s like the audience is in on a giant in-joke.”
While the audience isn’t directly a part of “A Tuna Christmas,” the actors perform as if the audience is a part of the town.
“We talk right to them,” Holbrook said, “bring them in and invite them in. ‘A Tuna Christmas’ is different. Like in act two, there’s a scene when the audience is part of the high school gym. They get to be the whole town.”
Dozens of theatrical companies are staging “A Tuna Christmas” this holiday season. However, the version in which Holbrook stars, which is staged by Columbus, Ga.-based Springer Theatricals, is apart from the others.
One of the play’s writers, Ed Howard, directs.
“With Ed directing it, that means that it’s being done how they intended it,” Holbrook said. “Because he is the playwright, it’s been really helpful. He knows these people. I’m growing in leaps and bounds as an actor from this show.”
No wonder. The audience will see Holbrook perform different characters, men and women. Each character comes with its own attire, unique voice and vocal inflections, and level of participation in the story.
“The style is like a high-wire act,” Holbrook said. “People might say, ‘How’d they change so fast?’ It’s like a circus.”
Indeed, P.T. Barnum probably would have smiled had he seen “A Tuna Christmas.” Funny story with characters seemingly culled from the wackiest of Southern imaginations, Holbrook said the play leaves quite a lasting impression.
“I say come see this one,” Holbrook said. “Ed seems incredibly overjoyed. He said, ‘I feel like God is smiling down on this production.’ ”
IF YOU GO
What: “A Tuna Christmas” starring Jef Holbrook and Topher Payne
When: Nov. 30, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Niswonger Performing Arts Center, 212 Tusculum Blvd., Greeneville, Tenn.
Admission: $22 for adults, $6 for students, children under age 5 admitted free
Info: (423) 638-1679
What: “A Tuna Christmas” starring Tod C. Riddle and Thomas Townsend
When: Nov. 29-Dec. 21, dinner at 6 p.m. and show at 8 p.m.; matinees with meal at 1 p.m. and show at 3 p.m.
Where: Blue Moon Dinner Theatre, 215 E. Main St., Johnson City, Tenn.
Info: (423) 232-1350
TOM NETHERLAND is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.