Dustin Tucker, left, and Tom Ford in character as Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, hosts of a small-town Texas radio show in “Greater Tuna.”
It's its own beast, Texas.
That's how the actor Tom Ford explains his place in the world. When you are from Texas, you tend to view things differently than other people. You have different values, different morals, different everything.
You go through life misunderstood by anyone who is not from Texas.
When Ford moved north from Texas, people told him, "Oh, you're from the South."
Ford took offense.
"No, I'm not," he bristled. "I'm from Texas."
His roots come to the fore in the comedy that opens the winter theater season at Portland Stage Company, "Greater Tuna." The show, which also stars fellow Texan Dustin Tucker, is one of the most-produced plays in the country. It was the first of four in a series of plays about the tiny fictional town of Tuna, Texas, created by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears.
It offers witty commentary about small-town life in Texas, while also providing withering satire about Texans and their -- dare we say -- small-minded attitudes.
Ford and Tucker play more than 20 characters in this show, which is fast-faced, madcap and bombastic in its irreverence. It is built around a series of vignettes connected by a local radio show on OKKK, hosted by Thurston Wheelis (Ford) and Arles Struvie (Tucker).
Through their news and weather reports and on-air interviews, Wheelis and Struvie introduce the characters of Tuna, including Bertha Bumiller, a mother of three, and the leaders of the Better Baptist Bureau, the Greater Tuna Humane Society and Ladies for a Better Tuna.
It's a minimalist show, with a simple set and only three props: A radio, a newspaper and (of course) a gun.
When they proposed it last year, Portland Stage artistic and executive director Anita Stewart paused. She adores these two actors and trusts their instincts, but "Greater Tuna" tends to play better at the community theater than the professional stage. It's a nice show, but not necessarily a substantial show, she said.
"'Greater Tuna' is one of those pieces that you equate with summer stock -- you put it up quickly and there is not much there. But the more they started talking about the characters and they started reading it, I realized there is a lot under the surface if you have actors who are able to go there."
Ford and Tucker begged for the chance. Neither has performed in the show, though both have coveted the chance.
"This play has a real heart that doesn't get revealed in many productions," Ford said. "Oftentimes, it's because the trappings of the show are very funny -- all the costume changes and the pace. But it has a sincerity to it that's often missed. I'm hoping we find that in it and bring it out."
Who better than a pair of proud Texans to find the heart of Tuna, Texas?
Ford and Tucker have known each other several years, because they've both worked at Portland Stage many times and often overlapped. Earlier this season, while Ford played Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" on the mainstage, Tucker was down the hall in the studio theater in "The Santaland Diaries."
They've admired each other's work and become friends, although they've appeared on stage together only once, in "Bach at Leipzig" at Portland Stage a few years back.
Both are Portland Stage regulars. Among Ford's performances, he appeared in "The Mystery of Irma Vep," "Lend Me a Tenor," "The Lady in Black" and, perhaps his best performance, "I Am My Own Wife."
Tucker's local credits include "The 39 Steps" and "Fully Committed," among many others.
They share similar skill sets and sensibilities as actors, and often are mistaken for one another, though they are separated by nearly 20 years. Ford is 51. Tucker is 33.
Their paths have taken remarkably similar routes.
Tucker grew up in Amarillo and Ford grew up in Lubbock. Both left Texas at a young age for actor training at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Both have family in Texas, and both return home frequently to visit. Ford bases his career out of New York, and Tucker now lives in Portland.
Both were home in Texas over Christmas, and both love their home state.
They are appearing in "Greater Tuna" not to make fun of Texas, but to do justice to the material, Tucker said. Neither has ever seen real Texans do this show, and both are eager to bring Lone Star credibility to these memorable characters.
"These are real people that Jaston and Joe (the creators) knew," Tucker said. "To a lot of people, they come across as cartoons. But they're not. This show celebrates small-town Texas, but you can find these people in small towns everywhere."
That is why Stewart hired these two guys. She is not interested in cheap laughs, but wants Ford and Tucker to find the humanity in these people.
"I expect them to bring that passion," she said. "How strange it is that two guys from the middle of nowhere in Texas wind up here connected to this theater. It felt like it needed to happen."
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:
Dustin Tucker as caller Didi Snavely, who wants to know if anything can “be done about those Halloween pranksters.”
In this scene from “Greater Tuna,” Pearl Burras, played by Tom Ford, frets over accidentally killing her husband’s $2,000 dog, Ripper.