BWW Review: Chaffin's Barn Does RED, WHITE & TUNA Up Right
Just in time to lift your spirits in the wake of a bruising presidential election season, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - the iconic theatrical venue, which for 50 years has delighTed Nashville audiences on the chow-and-bow circuit - provides ample laughs and plenty of guffaws (along with a bountiful buffet) with their latest version of Red, White and Tuna, which transports audiences to the third smallest town in Texas for yet another down-home, Independence Day-flavored adventure.
And, frankly, there's no better time to visit Chaffin's Barn than during the holidays, when your hostess Janie Chaffin (who co-owns the venerable venue with her husband, John Chaffin, arguably the hardest working man in show business, JAmes Brown notwithstanding!) has worked her decorating wizardry to transform the space into a veritable holiday wonderland. From the moment you walk up from the parking lot to the front door, you're greeted with Christmas decorations that would put Martha Stewart to shame and, once inside, you see that the themed decor alone is worth the price of a ticket...
Directed by Derek Whittaker and starring two of Nashville's favorite actors - the redoubtable Phil Perry and the irrepressible Scott Rice - Red, White and Tuna isn't necessarily the strongest of the many Tuna scripts by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard (the men who created the wacky menagerie of memorable characters who populate the fanciful and fictional town), but it still packs a mighty comedic wallop, particularly when the performers are as skilled and experienced as Messrs. Perry and Rice. Whittaker directs his pair of leading men with a deft touch and although the show's pacing sometimes drags, it allows audience members a brief respite every so often to catch their breath amid the non-stop laughter that ensues from the onstage hijinks.
As expected from other Tuna tales, this patriotic-flavored title offers some pointed political humor, some entertaining ribbing of smalltown themes and the exploitation of typical Southern stereotypes (the Smut Snatchers rum rampant over the town's miniscule citizenry, the Prayer Posse is on the loose, there's a local election of the Homecoming Class Reunion Queen that pits three of the town's leading ladies against one another and the local chapter of Free White Texas take one woman hostage until the state government recognizes a postage-stamp sized parcel of real estate as their home nation) that provides the fodder for this show, along with its predecessors Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, as well as the show that follows it, Tuna Does Vegas (next up on the Backstage at the Barn holiday schedule).
What sets the Tuna series of plays apart from others of similar ilk is the obvious affection and abiding respect the writers have for the characters they have created: Certainly, they hold nothing back in poking fun at the well-worn folks, but there's an underlying sense of authenticity that renders the people and the oddball situations in which we find them that makes them believable and accessible. The humor is never mean-spirited - whether it's directed at animal-loving simpleton Petey Fisk, flamboyant community theatre director Joe Bob Lipsey or the good-time gals Helen Bedd and Inita Goodwin who sling hash and hamburgers at the local drive-in - or off-putting. Rather, it's on-target and good-natured, ensuring that audiences will see much of themselves, their families (particularly if your family tree has a certain "deep-fried" sense of regionalism about it) and their wide circle of friends and acquaintances during the two acts of stage-worthy hilarity and merriment.
While the writers provide the structure and the howlingly funny lines, the two actors who bring every member of the Tuna population to life are the ones to be credited with the creation of disparate and individual characters they play. Each man is faced with the task of bring ten different souls to life with a minimum of fuss, depending upon his bag of theatrical tricks to do so.
Perry plays Amber Windchime, Arles Struvie, Didi Snavely, Petey Fisk, Momma Byrd, Charlene Bumiller, Stanley Bumiller, Vera Carp, Helen Bedd and Garland Poteet, while Rice assays the roles of Star Birdfeather, Thurston Wheelis, Elmer Watkins, Bertha Bumiller, Joe Bob Lipsey, Pearl Burras, R.R. Snavely, Inita Goodwin, Leonard Childers and the Reverand Sturgis Spikes.
Thoroughly committed to the job at hand, both Perry and Rice deliver sharply focused and completely humorous performances, aided and abetted by their "Tuna Helpers," equally legendary local theater artists Pam Atha and Joy Tilley Perryman - knowing the two divas are backstage to assist the two onstage stars only adds to the play's level of professionalism, mirth and fun!
Red, White and Tuna continues its run through the end of November and on December 1, Tuna Does Vegas takes over the space with Perry and Rice returning. Give yourself the gift of laughter by traveling to Texas for a few hours of escape...you'll be mighty glad you did!
- Red, White and Tuna. By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Directed by Derek Whittaker. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. At Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. Through November 27. For details, call (615) 646-9977.