Spokane theatergoers have been waiting years for Thurston Wheelis, Bertha Bumiller and the other beloved redneck denizens of Tuna, “the third-smallest town in Texas,” to return to local stages.
They’ll get their wish on Thursday, when Interplayers Professional Theatre opens the fourth comedy in the Tuna repertoire, “Tuna Does Vegas.” Tickets are already moving briskly, almost a certainty whenever the word “Tuna” is in the title of a show in Spokane.
Yet longtime local theatergoers will be celebrating an even more significant homecoming: The return of actor Michael Weaver, who played dozens, if not hundreds, of roles at both Interplayers (from 1986 to 2003) and his own professional Spokane troupe, the Actor’s Repertory Theatre (ART, from 2004 to 2008).
Weaver left Spokane after ART folded more than three years ago, and has since had a busy acting and directing career on stages in Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Arizona. So busy, in fact, that Interplayers artistic director Reed McColm was foiled in previous attempts to lure Weaver back to Interplayers, Weaver’s home stage for 17 years.
“I finally learned I had to book him a year in advance,” McColm said.
McColm discovered last year that the rights for 2008’s “Tuna Does Vegas” were finally going to become available, and he immediately talked Weaver into committing. It wasn’t that difficult.
“I was thrilled,” said Weaver, between rehearsals. “It brings back great memories.”
And the play itself was part of the allure. Of his many memorable Spokane roles, his multiple “Tuna” roles may be the ones people remember most fondly.
“If people stop me on the street, it would be for ‘A Tuna Christmas,’ ” Weaver once said.
He did that show three times – 1997, 2001 and 2006 – each time playing 10 or 11 roles, including the feisty old cuss Aunt Pearl, who wields a mean walking cane.
However, when McColm made the offer, Weaver said he would do it only if his old friends Patrick Treadway and William Marlowe would do it, too.
Weaver got his wish. Treadway is the co-star in this two-man, quick-change comedy, and Marlowe is directing. They are just as closely identified with the “Tuna” comedies as Weaver, having appeared in multiple versions themselves, often alongside Weaver.
“Any version of it could work, with the three of us,” said Weaver. “We all know the characters so well.”
Meanwhile, Weaver is happy to be back on familiar ground, catching up with his Spokane friends. So far, it has been a comfortable break in a necessarily nomadic life.
His current home? Well, he doesn’t exactly have one.
“I kind of don’t live anywhere,” said Weaver. “All my stuff is in storage in Seattle, and all of my bills go to my best friend’s house.”
Weaver has the right attitude for a working actor – he enjoys moving from show to show and city to city.
“I’m kind of the uber-tourist – and I love it,” he said.
He goes where the roles are, and he’s had no shortage of good ones. He arrived in Spokane fresh off a run as the general in “White Christmas” at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers, Fla. He has landed many roles in the dinner-theater circuit, including at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Penn., and 10 shows at the Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, Ill.
One of those Illinois shows, by the way, was “Greater Tuna.” And Weaver talked them into bringing Treadway out from Spokane to direct it.
By the way, the return of Weaver to Spokane and the return of Thurston Wheelis and Bertha Bumiller are one and the same. Weaver plays those roles along with six others, including Joe Bob Lipsey, Inita Goodwin and two new characters named Shot and Elvis 11.
“We play dueling Elvis impersonators,” Weaver said.
He has discovered in rehearsals that it’s easy to slip right back into the Aunt Pearl mindset, especially on the familiar Interplayers stage. He said “muscle memory takes over.”
In this installment, radio host Arles Struvie and his wife, Bertha, decide to take a trip to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows. Unfortunately for them, nearly the entire eccentric population of Tuna decides to come along for the trip. Treadway plays Arles, along with some of the town’s other well-known denizens, including Vera Carp, Didi Snavely, Helen Bedd and Petey Fisk.
Not only do the two actors have to master all of the lines in the show, but they also have to master a few dozen different voices and all of that frantic backstage quick-change choreography. However, in this show, the emphasis is more on the relationships than on theatrical sleight-of-hand.
When playwrights Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard first struck gold with “Greater Tuna” in 1981, the appeal was its quick-change novelty and its broad, redneck humor. But their scripts deepened and acquired more heart in “A Tuna Christmas” and, apparently to a lesser extent, in “Red White and Tuna” (which has never been produced in Spokane). The “Tuna” comedies are now among the most successful two-person scripts in American theater history, McColm said.
But don’t expect anything too deep. “Tuna Does Vegas” will still, of course, have its share of broad redneck humor, not to mention broad Texas drawls.
“It’s not Shakespeare,” deadpanned McColm. “But they do speak in a foreign dialect.”