"A Tuna Christmas" is the second in a popular series of plays about Tuna, the fictional third-smallest town in Texas. The story revolves around the town's annual Christmas yard display contest, won the previous 14 years by town snob and acting leader of the local Smut-Snatchers, Vera Carp, who has taken to censoring an already troubled production of "A Christmas Carol" directed by local artiste Joe Bob Lipsey. Subplots include the search for a mysterious Christmas Phantom that has been vandalizing the yard displays, and Bertha Bumiller's struggle to bring her family together for just one day of the year.
Ably directed by Michael Jones, "A Tuna Christmas" is both a love letter to and a critique of small-town America and its people. Audiences are introduced to 22 Tuna residents, all played by just two actors, longtime friends Jonathan Beck Reed and Donald Jordan, in performances of great talent and stamina. Both acted opposite each other in CityRep's production of "A Tuna Christmas" last year, and their familiarity with the material and each other is evident in their ability to play a range of scenes together as characters of all ages, genders and temperaments.
While they occasionally go a little broad in their characterizations, particularly in the Bumiller household, they manage to imbue most of their characters with a surprising amount of humanity, firmly establishing their hopes, fears and dreams. Nothing in Tuna happens in vacuum. Everyone's lives are interconnected, and the play does a great job of exploring the choices of Tuna's residents and how they impact one another.
Beck Reed seems to go through more frequent changes and does a better job of disappearing into his various roles, like store owner and weapons dealer Didi Snavely, animal lover Petey Fisk or radio DJ Arles Struvie. On the other hand, Jordan turns in significantly longer stretches as the same character, especially as the downtrodden housewife Bertha Bumiller.
Both handle the comedy quite well, but their real achievements are the quieter, emotional scenes, where everything is played straight, and they completely sell the interactions between the characters, such as when the loneliness and longing of Bertha and Arles are palpable.
"A Tuna Christmas" also features a versatile set designed by Don Childs that is eclectic enough to serve as multiple locations, but simple enough to never overpower the performances. The costumes by Jane Childs tend to be less subtle than the performances themselves, but also go a long way to informing the audience about the characters. Childs, along with the dressers, deserve special praise coordinating the dozens of rapid-fire costume changes throughout the show. There's also some excellent sound design by Will Burns that at times allows the actors to be in more than two places at once.
Audiences should definitely make the drive to Civic Center to meet the colorful residents of Tuna, Texas.
A Tuna Christmas, presented by the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, stages at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 13 at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker.