There’s a lot going on this Christmas Eve in small-town Tuna, Texas, in Portland Stage’s holiday show.
Bertha (Tom Ford) is trying to track down her tomcatting husband, and she and her fellow Smut Snatchers must decide whether “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” is about you-know-what kind of gentlemen.
Her son Stanley (Nathaniel P. Claridad) is fresh out of reform school and required to perform in “A Christmas Carol” to complete his terms of probation — but the theater’s electricity is about to be turned off for nonpayment.
Greater Tuna Humane Society employee Petey (Claridad) is trying to deter any rash holiday purchases of exotic pets. Elderly Pearl (Ford) wants to shoot the blue jays tormenting her hens. And the Christmas Phantom is once again vandalizing Tuna’s Christmas lawn ornament displays.
One in the series of “Tuna” plays written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams in response to the rise of the Moral Majority in 1980s Texas, “A Tuna Christmas” pokes holiday fun at homophobia, Christian extremism, gun lust, and book banning. And in keeping with the Tuna franchise, all eleven of its characters — some flagrant clichés, others complex and sympathetic — are played by just two actors.
Starring the magically protean Ford and Claridad, under the direction of Julia Gibson, “A Tuna Christmas” is alternately nuanced and outrageous, an uncharacteristically satirical yuletide offering from Portland Stage.
Ford and Claridad work chameleon-like wonders portraying the people of Tuna. They move so fluidly between these characters, and suspend disbelief so successfully, that I frequently expected three or four of their characters’ neighbors to stroll onstage at the same time.
Both actors distinguish their Tuna residents through terrific physical performances: Claridad’s feathery waitress, Helen, practically wafts across the stage; while his Vera, rich and dolled up in pink satin, condescends to Bertha with her entire vamping body.
Ford, particularly, is superb in revealing his characters’ laughable flaws but also their humanity. He draws Bertha with uncommon nuance and empathy. In her fluttering but purposeful gait running to the phone; in the expectant curve of her hand as she listens; in the set of her face as she tries to tamp down her hurt — she feels like a real human, not a caricature of a Texas bigot. In many of Bertha’s scenes, the show ceases to feel like satire at all.
Not all of Tuna’s characters have Bertha’s depth. The broadly written Didi (played equally broadly by Claridad), a despicable used-weapon seller in a camo jumpsuit and leopard-skin heels, is an off-putting cliché and an easy target as she decorates a magenta tree with green hand grenades and screams insults at her hapless husband.
Some of the show’s best satire comes in the details, like the ERA pin the Christmas Phantom sticks on a yard display’s Virgin Mary. Other times, the show’s tonal shifts give whiplash, as when Bertha swerves between a joke about Episcopalians to an anecdote about being whipped with a vacuum cleaner hose for sneaking out to a dance. Sometimes the writing makes it seem an easy slip from empathy to pity.
But as PSC’s program notes take pains to point out, a lot of the awful things that happen in Texas, are happening all around the country — including in Maine. “Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying,” says Bertha.
And as holiday fare, perhaps some of Tuna’s characters aren’t much more caricatured than a miser who disdains kindness, an orphan-turned-oppressor who would confine the underclass to workhouses. But “A Tuna Christmas” doesn’t enact the kind of mythic, ghost-abetted transformation that Scrooge is lucky enough to enjoy. It takes place in (more or less) the real world.
And in the real world, as we all know by now, sometimes we take our comfort and joy where we can get it.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.