In a flurry of galloping boot steps and broad air-lasso arm swings, Tom Willmorth and Joe Conley Golden trot out on stage. It's preview night for the two-man play, Greater Tuna, and no amount of banjo twanging could drown out the completely packed house's welcoming applause. Willmorth and Golden have been performing together in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's Greenshow since 1993, and the community has come out in droves to embrace their irreverent blend of political and historical satire.
Set in the "third smallest town in Texas," Greater Tuna follows the intertwining lives of 20 comically tragic Tuna residents, each played by Willmorth and Golden. Originally written in 1981 by Austin, Texas, dwellers Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard, the play is a commentary on small town prejudice, stifling pettiness and consuming pride—performed by two guys often dressed in drag. And though Russell Metheny's authentically constructed stage boasts a looming oil well, a vintage dining room table and a rusty OKKK radio station sign, Boise's crisp evening air and rising foothills couldn't seem farther away from the fictional town of Tuna, Texas.
With light scarves wound around their necks, audience members reach quietly into crinkly chip bags and raise steaming cups of hot chocolate to their lips as Golden and Willmorth open the play as southern-drawl radio DJs Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, respectively. Dressed in jeans and plaid button-down shirts, the two recount all of Tuna's pressing daily news, including a UFO sighting described as "a giant hovering chalupa without the guacamole" and updates on the Tuna Little Theatre's production of My Fair Lady—which, to cut costs, will be using the sets and costumes from a previous production of South Pacific. Throughout the radio broadcast, Willmorth finds excuses to exit the stage and reemerge as other town characters, like the abrasive Howard-Stern-in-drag Didi Snavely who's used weapon store boasts "if Didi's can't kill it, it's immortal."
As the play continues, a mixed bag of eccentric and small-minded characters—like the purple-polyester-pantsuit-clad housewife Bertha Bumiller (Golden) and the lisping, tender-hearted animal shelter worker Petey Fisk (Willmorth)—emerge. Willmorth and Golden seamlessly exit the stage and reappear as different Tuna residents who are made all the more convincing by Ann Hoste's spot on vintage costumes. Though Greater Tuna originally premiered in 1981, Hoste's costumes don't ground the play in the big hair Regan era, but rather, create a timeless, perennially unfashionable small town feeling. But according to Golden, a lot more than quick costume changes went into creating the play's 20 unique personalities.
"It's one thing to memorize the lines and do all the staging and stuff but then you add the element of running backstage and three people ripping clothes off of you then shoving you back on stage and playing somebody different," says Golden. "[The character] can't just be the clothes."
Vocal coach Ann Klautch helped the two actors nail varying accents and mannerisms for each of the Tuna characters. In rehearsals, they would play a game where Golden and Willmorth would strike a pose and have the crew members try to identify the character they were playing. Constructing an array of idiosyncrasies for each character allowed Golden and Willmorth to look beyond the script's text and explore the erratic and often backwards thoughts that motivate each of the play's characters.
"We can't comment on these people. We know there are crazy people like this, they exist. They're our neighbors," explains director Gordon Reinhart. "We have to find the truth of each [character] and not shy away from the fact that they're horrible people. The play is doing this wonderful thing where it's kind of poking this stick lightly at this level of hate and fear and loneliness in the country."
Characters like Vera Carp, the pink-dress-and-pearl-clad Baptist who runs the "smut snatchers" society and Elmer Watkins, a gun-toting, red-plaid-wearing Klan member reveal the town's wince-inducing conservatism. Though it might be easy for Boise audiences to keep these characters at arms length, viewing them through a critical lens, Reinhart explains that there's a universal lesson to be learned from all of their petty resentments and back-stabbing ways.
"They're all very proud of Tuna and want to promote it. The common hook, the problem, the obstacle, is they hate each other. And that struck me as just very American. I think this is a very powerful message: you can be proud of your town and hate your neighbor, and you're never going to get anywhere."
Greater Tuna closes Saturday, Sept. 27. 5657 Warm Springs Ave., 208-429-9908. For information, visit idahoshakespeare.org.