Nathaniel P. Claridad and Tom Ford will play 24 residents of a small Texas town in Portland Stage’s production of “A Tuna Christmas.”

With two actors playing two dozen ridiculous roles, A Tuna Christmas is a searingly funny satire that has become a seasonal favorite across the U.S. since its debut in 1989.

Set in the small, fictional town of Tuna, Texas, the play (written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard) is part of a trilogy that responded to the rise of “Moral Majority” figures, like Jerry Falwell, Sr. The comedy’s edge has honed with time. “Sadly, the targets that are mocked in these plays have only gotten a stronger foothold in both Texas and the United States,” said Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart.

Actors Nathaniel P. Claridad*, who is making his Portland Stage debut, and Tom Ford*, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, sat for a conversation alongside show director Julia Gibson. It was their third day of rehearsals.

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association

MOLLY ADAMS: Tom, what is it about Texas?

TOM FORD: Texas, I feel, is this big example of what America can be at its best and what America can be at its worst. You will find the most loving, caring, big hearted people there, who you will disagree with on every single thing. So, the thing about these plays, is that the issues or views that are being satirized have not changed at all. They’ve just gotten bigger. And that’s educational and a little shocking at times.

NATHANIEL P. CLARIDAD: Some of the comedy reads different because of where we are as a country now. It’s a strange balance. Laughter is a great way to define empathy, if we are laughing together. Here, we’re making fun of closed mindedness, but also finding radical empathy, because the characters have to be people.

FORD: To me, the Tuna plays are classics of regional theater. They are almost Mark Twain-like in putting a finger on the foibles and flaws in the American fabric.

Nathaniel, how do you keep track of 12 characters?

CLARIDAD: I think we’re learning how to do it. I’ve done multiple characters before, but never this many, and usually you have time to go backstage, put on another costume, think for a minute, but this is so fast. For me, it’s finding the physical shape. If I can figure out how they walk and sit in a chair, I’m in a good place. So on day three, I’m just working on walking.

What’s a favorite character of yours in this play?

JULIA GIBSON: I think it’s safe to say Bertha Bumiller is the centerpiece of the play, and Tom plays her. It’s the role that originator and writer Joe Sears earned a Tony nomination for in 1995. Bertha’s trying hard to make Christmas be perfect in the way Christmas is supposed to be perfect and it’s all just a big heartbreak and disappointment, until it’s not anymore.

CLARIDAD: I really love Petey Fisk. He works at the Humane Society. He’s so simple, he reminds me of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

FORD: And I love Pearl. She’s the matriarch and she’s not shy. And for me, a lot of these performances are a tribute to my nonny, my mama, ladies from Oklahoma and Texas in my life.

Is there a scene that you are excited to put together?

GIBSON: There are very few props onstage in this show. We’re just making the world. We bake cookies, but there’s no oven, no cookies. And there’s this one scene where Myles (Hatch, stage manager) has been giggling uncontrollably—the cat gets in the Christmas tree and Bertha chases it around the room and [stage whispers] there ain’t no cat. But, I am also fond of the places where the story goes deeper. There’s heart and hope and holiday feel good in it. But it’s just so funny. I think right now, one of the things we need most is to be able to laugh with one another.

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