January 20, 2013

Winter Theater Roundup: Texas to a 'T'

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It's its own beast, Texas.

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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.”

Photos by Aaron Flacke/Courtesy of Portland Stage Company

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Dustin Tucker as caller Didi Snavely, who wants to know if anything can “be done about those Halloween pranksters.”

Additional Photos Below


WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave.

WHEN: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; then 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 17; with additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 and 2 p.m. Feb. 14.

TICKETS & INFO: $34 to $44; 774-0465 or portlandstage.org

STARRING: Tom Ford and Dustin Tucker, with direction by Julia Gibson

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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In this scene from “Greater Tuna,” Pearl Burras, played by Tom Ford, frets over accidentally killing her husband’s $2,000 dog, Ripper.


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