The little town of Tuna — third smallest town in Texas — is a mighty funny place to visit.
But, good grief, you wouldn't want to live there.
Elmer Watkins is organizing a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Bertha Bumiller wants the books "Roots" and "Romeo and Juliet" out of public schools. ("Roots" fails to explore "the other side" of slavery, and "Romeo and Juliet" encourages disobedience to parental authority.) Pearl Burras is spending her days poisoning dogs. And Reverend Spikes wants words that could be "misinterpreted" by impressionable youth struck from the dictionary — hot and crabs, just to name two.
Frankly, the play "Greater Tuna" would be unwatchable if it wasn't for the fact that Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard crafted their indictment of small-town America into a comedy, which is very well rendered in a funny Jester Theater Company production.
The writers have given us plenty to laugh at, right down to the basics: men in dresses. The funniest conceit of all: Two actors play 20 characters through a series of breathtakingly quick changes.
Jay Hopkins, artistic director of Jester, is the comic anchor — pathetic as Bertha, matriarch of a redneck family; sinister as Klan leader Elmer; desperately oily as the reverend. He uses his bulk to his advantage, swaggering through his stupidity as Sheriff Givens or mulishly intimidating his son as adulterous Hank.
But Tyler Cravens steals the show out from under him with a slew of sharply etched characters, each distinct in voice and manner. His tour-de-force is sad sack Petey Fisk, animal lover with a speech impediment who trails off after each pathetic plea with a wistful "Thank you." His Vera Carp runs a close second, all fussiness, adjusting her cat's-eye glasses as she oh-so-sweetly puts down other townsfolk and sashays through a funeral parlor.
Cravens has a knack of using not just his posture and voice to change character, but his eyes, as well: leeringly unfocused as Didi Snavely, second-hand gun seller who needs "nerve pills," or angrily narrowed as Stanley, the town ne'er-do-well unreformed by reform school.
Both men are helped by Diana Hopkins' clever costumes that convey personality and Jay Hopkins' sound design of small-town radio bits and appropriate hillbilly music.
In the best characterizations, a feeling of sadness radiates from these simple folks even as we're laughing at them. The thwarted cheerleader, the adulterer's wife, even the UFO believer. They all seek an escape from their small lives.
We, the audience, can laugh smugly at these ignorant rubes and their backwards ways because we know we're better than them.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038
See for yourself
•What: Jester Theater Company production of 'Greater Tuna,' a comedy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard
•When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 2
•Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
•Tickets: $24; $20 students and seniors