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Is frozen Tuna better than canned? 

Cornpone Christmas comedy returns

The inspiration for Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard to conjure up the third smallest town in Texas resulted in a madcap two-hander, Greater Tuna, that premiered in its home state in 1981, a year before beginning a 500-performance run off-Broadway. Although the original Tuna was among the most-produced comedies in America back in its heyday, its staying power has been far outstripped by the 1989 sequel, A Tuna Christmas.

You have to be a fairly avid Williams-Sears devotee or an all-around theater aficionado to have caught — or know about — the last production of Greater Tuna in Charlotte just over 10 years ago. Since then, we've had no less than seven homemade helpings of Christmas Tuna, including the last of five editions by Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2003 before the franchise passed over to CAST (Carolina Actors Studio Theatre) in 2006.

I first marveled at how crowds howled for this cornpone in 1996, so I've seen more than a couple of duos tackling the 22 motley hayseeds who populate Tuna, Texas, as the sun goes down on Christmas Eve. Much like my late dad, who disdained the Scrooges of George C. Scott and Reginald Owen, preferring to rendezvous with the Alistair Sims film every year it was broadcast, I find that I have some steadfast ideas on how the signature Tuna crackpots should be portrayed.

Looking back, those ideas came from actors who didn't wow me very much the first time around. So I wouldn't be surprised if this year's CAST duo, Tom Ollis and Jack Utrata, became equally definitive for a new generation of Tuna tasters. The crowd reaction to last Friday night's performance was certainly reason to be optimistic. Utrata covers the cluster of roles written for Williams, best remembered hereabouts in the portrayals of long-and-lean Scott Treadway and his immediate successor, Duke Ernsberger. Ollis holds down the Sears roles, long the rotund domain of Michael Edwards.

Utrata has his work cut out for him if he wishes to replicate the comical eclat of the raspy-voiced, chain-smoking Didi Snavely, Tuna's zealous small arms dealer. The whole cigarette-toking shtick in the middle of singing Christmas carols didn't even give a hint of what it was supposed to be until deep into Act 2, and there was none of Treadway's trademark nasal whine in the voice, a further drain on the comedy. At the other end of the spectrum, Utrata doesn't find the luminescence to bleeding-heart wildlife conservationist Petey Fisk that Ernsberger revealed in his soliloquy under the stars late in Act 2 — and I want that whistling lisp back, please.

Ollis disdains most of the excesses — and shameless mugging — that Edwards brought so heartily to the table. That's not a good thing when we come to the telltale limp of our heroine and benefactress Aunt Pearl Burras, whose each step was an epic when Edwards wielded her cane, and I feel a little short-changed on the Sad-Sack adorableness of R.R. Snavely, Didi's hapless husband and UFO enthusiast. Subtlety has also infected Ollis's portrayal of town artiste Joe Bob Lipsey, who should be self-evidently gay to everyone in town except Charlene Bumiller, his greatest admirer.

My wife Sue was more troubled by the pacing, which often did seem frozen compared even to the Tuna canned in past shipments at CAST. Apparently, a 2:02 clocking plus intermission doesn't trouble Lena Olson in her directing debut, but new audiences will not get the idea that the quick costume changes offstage are intended to be part of the fun. When you slow down to the more deliberate pace of a drama, you inevitably sacrifice some of the hectic energy and effervescence of a comedy.

Ever since CAST took over custody of Tuna Christmas, their inclination has been to amp up the storytelling while tamping down the shtick. The chief benefit of that approach is that you'll be able to grasp the intricacies of the plot better the first time around. I think I may also have found myself laughing at a few one-liners that zoomed past me before.

The big events in Tuna are the judging of the annual Christmas Yard Display contest, which moral crusader Vera Carp has won 14 times running, and the opening night of Joe Bob's production of A Christmas Carol. Charlene's twin brother Stanley is also participating in this show in order to complete his juvie probation. But can you believe this? Tuna's theater is financially troubled, and Dixie Deberry is threatening to turn out the lights on the temperamental Joe Bob, quashing Stanley's hopes of repaying his debt to society. Until that happens, he is stuck in Tuna — and the chief suspect as the Christmas Phantom, whose annual Yuletide raids have gone unsolved for years.

Costumes, lights, tech effects appear to be ghosts of Tunas past. Where Ollis and Utrata truly shine is in portraying the key pairs of characters who are peripheral to the main plotlines yet dominant in the amount of stage time they get. Greeting us at radio station OKKK as the comedy begins is the first of these, hick deejays Thurston Wheelis and Arles Stuvie, who conveniently manage to pan around to the town's key events amid their chatter. The scene is even more hectic and violent at the start of Act 2, when we meet Helen Bedd and Inita Goodwin at the contest judging and adjourn with them to their night gig as waitresses and short-order cooks at the Tasty-Creme takeout.

Aside from the sluggish pacing, that trashy scene delivers the best comedy, but there's a nice warmth — generously sprinkled with laughs — when Utrata returns as Arles and has his rendezvous with Bertha Bumilla, the careworn mother of the troubled twins. There we learn how exciting and adventurous it might be to throw away all their Baptist inhibitions and live for a night as Methodists. Or even, God forbid, Episcopalians!

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