Making due without a permanent home at the moment, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre has crafted a shorter, leaner season. The new building on the campus of Mars Hill University that will house the school’s theater department, as well as provide space for future summer programming of the venerable professional theater company, is nearing completion. SART’s current base is the intimate Spainhour Recital Hall in Moore Auditorium. It is more of a blackbox theater, which is well suited for the first show of SART’s 42nd season.
The company kick things off with the comedy Greater Tuna, a theater staple since the 1980s. It has inspired numerous sequels, including Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna, giving us many of the same characters in holiday settings.
The show is a tour de force for two actors, who assume the identities of the population of Tuna, Texas. It is a small town with the kind of colorful characters who would feel right at home at a Donald Trump rally. The script is filled with deep, cutting satire about the simple folks of Tuna, as filtered through the airwaves of WOKKK, where two local radio hosts share news of book and record burnings with a solemn, straight-faced, Southern religious pride that is as funny as it is scary. They weave narratives of locals — including a recently deceased judge found in a woman’s bathing suit, local Humane society stalwart Petey Fisk and his hordes of animals, the highly dysfunctional Bumiller family, and a host of others.
Joel P. Rogers and Brian Mercer handle all of those roles. They are aided by an able backstage crew that helps them quick-change from one role to another. Often the changes take place in a matter of seconds. The two come across as a bit of a Laurel and Hardy duo, comically playing off of each other and the distinct differences in their physical sizes. Rogers has a nice, easy manner and a smooth, slow-burn reaction when called for on stage. He’s also great as Pearl Burrus, the sweet little old lady who serves her homemade “bitter pills” to local dogs.
Mercer, with his slighter physical presence, is wiry and more frenetic in most of his roles. Still, he is able to smoothly transition into radio host Arliss Struvie and casually re-enter with coffee cup in hand. He also plays aforementioned animal rights lover Petey and reform school graduate Stanley Bumiller. Rogers shines as mother Bertha Bumiller and her lay-about husband, Hank.
The show, for all of its fast-paced laughs and visual gags of two men in women’s clothes, also has a lot of heart. The characters, despite their questionable acts and view points, are not wholly unredeemable. By the end of the two hours, the audience has gotten to know them and come to care for them, even if they don’t agree with them.
WHAT: Greater Tuna
WHERE: Spainhour Recital Hall, Moore Auditorium, Mars Hill University, sartplays.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, July 10, at 7:30 nightly and Sunday at 2 p.m. $25