- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
After starring in two-actor versions of the four “Tuna” comedies for decades — including stops on and off Broadway — why in the world would Jaston Williams direct a touring version of “Greater Tuna” with three performers?
“The show becomes so indelible in people’s minds, they can’t imagine it any other way,” Williams says after a midafternoon lunch at his well-proportioned midcentury modern house in Lockhart. “The original plan, however, was for four people, two men and two women. Joe Sears and I played all the characters for 30 years — actually, 32. At a certain point, you gotta stop counting.”
So often did he don the “Tuna” costumes that he developed a type of foot tendonitis that doctors usually see only in women who regularly wear high heels.
Williams: “Yes, 30 years in heels!”
From its beginnings as a phenomenon in Austin’s underground theater scene in 1981, the “Tuna” series seemed everywhere all the time by the 1990s. After this city, Washington, D.C., was its veritable second home. More than once, Aunt Pearl, Vera Carp, Bertha Bumiller and gang turned up at the White House.
Then “Tuna” sort of faded from view for a while, at least in its birthplace city. At the same time, the mostly gentle sendups of small-town Texas culture never lost popularity in the hinterlands.
Well, it is “Tuna” time again. Not only does Williams’ three-actor version of “Greater Tuna” play the Long Center on Friday and Saturday, “A Tuna Christmas,” the strongest play in the series, is slated for a revival at Zach Theatre in the 2017-2018 season.
One cyclical reason for its revival: The playwrights’ satirical treatment of the Moral Majority movement of the early 1980s is doubly relevant to the unashamedly nativist, intolerant politics of the 2010s.
“The sensibility is probably even more applicable to Austin than when we first wrote it,” Williams says. “Some characters in the play were, when we wrote it, nuts on the fringes. Now they have offices in the White House. The censorship, the approach to education, the attitudes to immigrants and to the Spanish language, all the injustice, it’s back. And it is all done with comedy.”
Take it on the road!
Three years ago, four producers contacted Williams and his stage and writing partner, Sears — a third playwright, Ed Howard, receives credit but is virtually invisible to the public eye — with the idea of both a “Tuna” tour and a sit-down production in Branson, Mo.
“They ran the numbers in Branson and decided that wouldn’t make sense,” Williams says. “I never thought we were real Branson material anyway. Our plays have always had a wider reach. I mean, they reach that crowd, too, but wider.”
The producers, from Florida and California — two of them with extensive previous “Tuna” experience — formed the Tuna Touring Group and secured the rights to “Greater Tuna.”
“Then things came up that slowed things down,” Williams recalls. “The costumes and sets were in storage, but do we want to use those again? The thing it came down to is that I trusted these people. They understood what it was.”
The producers encouraged the possibility of new material.
“At the time, I wasn’t up to rewrites,” Williams says. “Then things happened in the country, and if you are a satirist, you have to respond. There’s some Trump stuff in there.”
He also updated references to the Ku Klux Klan and fleshed out some of the cameo roles. Almost all of the original, however, remains.
“People now say: ‘You just wrote that, didn’t you?’” Williams says with a sly smile. “No, we wrote that line 30 years ago. Now some of it is new. If you leave gold on the table, I’m going to pick it up.”
When time came to choose the actors for the tour, Williams and the producers auditioned more than 100 candidates in Los Angeles and Austin.
“Two actors out there were extraordinary,” he says. “And young enough to play the kids believably. But too young to play some of the older characters believably. They could do it, but not as believably.”
From this first sampling, Williams was sure about Tim Leavon, already a full-time actor, who ended up playing Vera Carp, Stanley Bumiller and Harold Dean Lattimer, among other parts.
Over the years, Williams had seen any number of stagings of “Greater Tuna” and “A Tuna Christmas,” which are revived more often than “Red, White and Tuna” or “Tuna Does Vegas.” Once, he caught a snippet over the radio of Will Mercer doing “Christmas” in Wimberley.
“He made a great Bertha, even over the radio,” Williams says. “He teaches part-time at Texas State University, a big guy who grew up around here, with some Louisiana roots. I had seen in him a production of Horton Foote’s ‘Talking Pictures,’ and he came in during Act 2, playing a drunk. Now, that’s hard to do. This was community theater, and he was magnificent.”
In fact, Mercer, who now plays Aunt Pearl, Bertha Bumiller and Thurston Wheelis, as well as other characters, was perhaps too convincing.
“A woman came up to Will after his performance and attacked him for being drunk onstage,” Williams laughs. “‘Yes, you were!’ she said. ‘I was married to a lying alcoholic. I know one when I see one!’”
Williams had seen Ryan Bailey performing and teaching in Fredericksburg
“We had given them rights to do the ‘Tuna’ shows,” Williams says. “They do incredible versions. There was a guy there who memorably played Arles and Petey, while stretching to play the female characters.”
Indeed, he now plays Petey and Arles, but also Didi Snavely, one of the darkest characters, and other roles.
So after seeing everybody, Williams the called producers and said, “I really need to do it with three.”
“Two of the producers were totally opposed,” he says. “We got on a conference call. They broke down and let me do it.”
So what is it like coming back to the familiar material, this time on the other side of the footlights?
“It’s been a joy,” he says. “It truly allowed me to rethink it all and treat it as a new work. Being up on that side and always looking out, you forget what it looks like, what it sounds like.”
Each actor plays at least seven roles. They rehearsed in a dance studio on East Riverside Drive that formerly housed Austin Musical Theatre.
“They all like each other,” Williams says. “And all support each other.”
The tour opened earlier this year in McAllen.
“That’s the one place Tuna has never played — at least we didn’t,” Williams says. “We played Lubbock last weekend. If Lubbock gives us a thumbs-up, we are OK. They are in some ways proprietary about the piece, too. We got a love-letter review and cheers. We came away very relieved.”
Though fully staged, it is still a work somewhat in progress.
“The actors are not ready to stop making it better,” Williams says. “There’s more here.”
Returning to Austin, where for decades Sears and Williams were guaranteed cheers at the Paramount Theatre of the kind usually reserved for the Longhorns during a winning season, presents its own demands.
“I am touched that people say that nobody else can do it,” Williams says. “And yes, it will never be the same. I don’t want it to be. I’m honored that people have happy memories. But what we are doing here is pretty beautiful, too.”