During Thursday's performance of the Timber Lake Playhouse's Greater Tuna, I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the comedic styles of cast members Matt Webb and Cody Jolly. Each comical in their own rights, Webb and Jolly are distinctly different in their portrayals of the residents of Tuna, Texas, in playwrights Jaston Williams', Ed Howard's, and Joe Sears' two-person, 20-character play about a day spent in this small town.
Under the direction of Stephen Schellhardt, the pair displays great chemistry and noteworthy timing in both their line deliveries and the pacing of their actions. Yet what individualizes the actors is that Jolly plays to the audience for laughs, whereas Webb's comedy invites the patrons to come to him.
Jolly is loud and brash, which is never more fitting than when he's portraying Charlene, who hopes to finally become cheerleader after her seventh year of trying ... and her seventh year of being in high school. The performer mixes a Southern drawl with a slight Valley Girl accent and the typically condescending, know-it-all tone of a teen. (Trust me, I have one.) But while I found Jolly's obvious expectation of laughs almost joke-killing, Thursday's audience ate his routine up, practically rolling in the aisles at Charlene's poem about Tuna, which he delivers as if it were a cheer.
Personally, I more admired Jolly's take on Charlene's twin brother Stanley, especially after one of Greater Tuna's storylines takes a dark turn. While I won't spoil this subplot, there's a point in it in which Jolly's Stanley taunts a corpse, and then laughs with layers of domination, arrogance, and glee that sent chills down my spine.
Webb, in contrast, takes a relatively sincere approach to his characters and displays an adept use of pauses when building up to punchlines. He doesn't play his lines as funny, but simply delivers the lines and lets them be funny, and this renders several of Webb's characters touching, such as Charlene's mother Bertha Bumiller. His impressive performance as this beleaguered housewife is filled with laugh-worthy moments - especially as Bertha repeatedly chases her son's dogs out of the house - and others that elicit tears, as when we learn of her painful experiences at the hands of husband Hank (also played by Webb).
While his second-rate televangelist Reverend Spikes is arguably Webb's funniest character, his best moments are still Bertha's. There's a moment here in which Bertha brags about being the only soprano in the First Baptist Church who can hit a high "C," and then proceeds to hit a controlled but meek-sounding note as if it were award-worthy. Hilariously, it's not.
The Timber Lake Playhouse's Greater Tuna is also a visual wonder. I eagerly anticipated each of costume designer Emma O'Dell's looks for these women, as her ensembles are rather modest and realistic, and not remotely costume-y. Scenic designer Banjamin Lipinski's set, with its mostly floor-to-ceiling farmhouse windows, is art-gallery-worthy, boasting another row of large windows adorned at the top, and an artistic arrangement of additional windows in various shapes and sizes.
Lighting designer James Kolditz, meanwhile, ups the awe factor by positioning lights so perfectly that each window becomes a different color in the second act, providing a stained-glass look when the plot shifts to its church setting. I'd gladly live in this gorgeously rustic Tuna, Texas - and especially if I could befriend Webb's Bertha.
Greater Tuna runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through July 25, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.