Tom Ford as Thurston Wheelis and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Arles Struvie in “A Tuna Christmas” at Portland Stage. Photos by No Umbrella Media, LLC

The holiday show from Portland Stage veers far from tradition, and the season’s typical snowy sets, but it does try hard to create its own type of Christmas magic.

“A Tuna Christmas,” from 1989, is one of a series of plays written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams about the fictional goings-on in a small town in Texas called Tuna. The series is known for presenting large amounts of down-home comedy uplifted by touches of broad satire and folksy warmth. The line between character and caricature gets a little smudged.

Like the others in the series, this Christmas play is a lighthearted and good-natured show that wants you to laugh not only at its jokes but also about the way in which they are presented and who and what they target. The guise of satire may not completely excuse some dated elements in the show. But the sight of two professional actors going for broke as the sole cast members will be a kick for those open to some light and a little bit corny fare for the holidays.

More of a snapshot than a narrative to be told, the two-hour play centers around the trials of various locals as they prepare for the holidays. Squabbles emerge around a Christmas display contest and a local theater production. Social issues regarding religion, guns and censorship, of course still very much in the headlines today, are raised with an ear to the absurd lengths to which they are sometimes taken.

The actors work hard to fill 11 different roles apiece, changing from one personality to another in voice, accent, attitude and costume, not to mention gender, at breakneck speed. Under the direction of Julia Gibson, Portland Stage veteran Tom Ford and newcomer Nathaniel P. Claridad were all-in at the opening performance. They needed to be to keep the rapid-fire show going. Mugging and exaggeration abounded along with the little bits of wisdom delivered.

Ford has the central role of Bertha, a brassy but spiritually wounded housewife and mother with nonconformist children and a wayward husband. The actor has the chance to employ his established skills at humanizing a crusty character in touching ways, while also revealing a keen sense of where the laughs reside in the script (his few winks at the audience were welcome in this busy show). Ford’s portrayal of the feisty elder Pearl and the flouncy theater director Joe Bob were also highlights.


Ford as Aunt Pearl Burras and Claridad as Stanley Bumiller.

Claridad got his biggest response from the crowd in the role of Vera, a flamboyant purveyor of luscious poses and conservative attitudes (as a leader of the Smut Snatchers). As Petey, a disgruntled member of the Human Society, the actor also got to deliver some of the show’s funniest lines. His gun-dealing Didi hit the comedic target as well.

Randall Parsons’ scenic design gets the job done in establishing a rustic ambiance. Likewise, the costumes by Cole McCarty wrap the character’s identities in lived-in styles.

It may be overdue for an update in some of its verbiage, but there’s a reason this play still resonates even as it tries ever so hard to make you laugh.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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