VERSAILLES — It’s not Christmas without Tuna. Tuna, Texas, that is.
Since its 1989 debut as the second of a three-play series set in the “third-smallest” town in Texas, A Tuna Christmas by Ed Howard, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears has quickly become a holiday staple of theaters around the nation.
Part of its success is a spate of colorful small-town characters with equally colorful Southern sayings, all played by only two actors. With agile and comedically savvy actors, A Tuna Christmas is a guaranteed crowd pleaser — but it’s a tall order.
For the production at The Woodford Theatre, director Tonda Fields tapped stage veterans Greg Adams and Jason Meenach to play more than 20 wacky Southern characters, many of them women, and the duo proved up to the formidable task at the performance I attended Friday night, during the second of its three-weekend run.
Playing characters including a bouffant-sporting housewife whose favorite Christmas memories include conjugal visits to her incarcerated husband to a hard-as-nails female proprietor of a used-weapons store who wouldn’t blink at shooting someone who stole her toaster, Adams and Meenach delight in the campy schtick that defines Tuna. They succeeded in defining each of their 20 or so characters, although some are more memorable than others. High points include Adams’ portrayal of lispy exotic animal collector Petey Fisk and siblings Jody, Charlene and Stanley Bumiller, who equally bring different kinds of trouble to their beleaguered mother, Bertha, played with a mix of camp and heartbreak by Meenach. A couple of Meenach’s more memorable characterizations include slingshot-wielding little old lady Pearl Burras, who, along with her elderly pals, have a Texas-size secret to keep. A brief but hilarious appearance by Sheriff “Rubber Sheets” Givens had the audience in stitches.
Adams and Meenach could sharpen their pantomiming skills. The lack of props — including telephones, pieces of paper, etc. — which is typical in Tuna productions, is an added performance challenge to an already challenging play. Most of the time, the duo’s miming of props was easy to grasp but on a couple of occasions they were rushed or underplayed and I experienced a couple of seconds of lag between wondering what they were miming and understanding it.
Kudos to Kirsten Aurelius’ costuming and wigs, which facilitate Adams’ and Meenach’s lighting-quick offstage wardrobe changes while clearly defining the multitude of characters the duo portray. I particularly enjoyed her attention to detail in recurring Texan flourishes like the different variations of cowboy boots that appear.
Speaking of quick changes, it is easy to see why the backstage crew comes out for a bow at the end of this show. Adams’ and Meenach’s character changes are Noises Off>-level grueling, and a team of dressers and stagehands keep the pace clipping along with costume and wig switches as well as two large, impressive revolving set pieces by scenic designer Jerome Wills.
Perhaps what is most enjoyable about A Tuna Christmas is that even though Kentucky is a long ways from Texas, plenty of Southernisms and oddball characters abound in our own back yard. The Tuna plays are a fun and meaningful way to celebrate these everyday oddities.
IF YOU GO
'A Tuna Christmas'
What: The Woodford Theatre's production of the 1989 play by Ed Howard, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears
When: 8 p.n. Dec. 14, 20, 21; and 2 p.m. Dec. 15, 22
Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $19. Available at (859) 873-0648 or Woodfordtheatre.com.