In 2001 and again in 2005, William S. Murphey played 40 roles in the comedy Fully Committed at Theatre in the Square. At the Marietta playhouse's A Tuna Christmas, by contrast, Murphey splits the twenty-odd characters with co-star Steve L. Hudson. One would never accuse Murphey of slacking off, but he gives a surprisingly restrained performance in Tuna Christmas – at least as restrained as an actor can get while wearing wigs, old lady dresses and sheriff uniforms.
A Tuna Christmas is the first of three sequels to Greater Tuna, Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard's campy Texas-sized hit about the outlandish goings-on in the Lone Star state's third-smallest town. Strung like chili-pepper Christmas lights, the plot threads in A Tuna Christmas include an annual Christmas yard display contest, a production of A Christmas Carol at a theater about to lose its electricity, the prankish vandalism of the Christmas Phantom, and the hopes of middle-aged mom Bertha Bumiller (Murphey) that her no-account husband will be home for the holidays.
Essentially, Murphey plays straight man (if the term has any meaning in this context) to Hudson, who takes on the louder, brassier roles such as censorious snob Vera Carp and grizzled Didi Snavely, owner of the gun shop Didi's Used Weapons. Hudson repeatedly berates and brays at off-stage characters, providing some of the show's biggest laughs while also working on the audience's last nerves. Murphey, in contrast, conveys the melancholy of Bertha and her elderly aunt Pearl, which deflates some of the potential humor but adds some emotional weight to the frivolous material. When Pearl and crotchety Dixie Deberry (Hudson) sing Andrews Sisters songs while hunting blue jays with a slingshot, the play offers an oddly endearing image of the enduring spirit of old ladies.
A Tuna Christmas belongs to the kind of campy Southern comedy that blurs the line between affection for and condescension to the drawling, gun-toting high-haired inhabitants of small towns. While it's easy to imagine another theater playing Tuna's kitschy aspects to the hilt, Theatre in the Square's production feels less like a chicken-fried Texas drag show than a bittersweet Garrison Keillor story. Men in waitress uniforms notwithstanding.