When the three brothers who run Parlor Room Theatre decided to stage the legendary comedy A Tuna Christmas, they felt the need to make a cut. “It wasn’t just a line,” says Frank DiSalvo, the eldest, and director of the production. “We wanted to remove a whole monologue and character.”
That character is Elmer Watkins, and he appears only once, at the start of the show, inviting the denizens of Tuna, Texas to “the Klan’s family night,” says DiSalvo, “which is a Christmas-themed party called ‘The Whitest Christmas Ever.’ We kind of chickened out. We weren’t sure if the satire would be evident that early in the show. And we didn’t want to shock people.”
Frank contacted the original playwrights — Joe Sears and Jaston Williams — and the request was politely turned down. But Williams emailed the DiSalvos with thoughts on how to best portray the character. “This guy’s dumber than a plate of bacon, and treat him like a sow loader that you pass in the night,” Williams told the DiSalvos.
“One of the other things he said,” says Frank, “was that if anyone in the audience isn’t offended at least once during the show, it isn’t out of a lack of the authors’ trying.”
Anyone familiar with the legendary Sears and Williams’ Tuna trilogy will appreciate the satire, even though the times are more racially charged than they were in 1989, when the play made its debut.
“I think it’s important to look at the current times to ask yourself should this play be produced now? Well, I think it should. The play shows that these people are still out there,” says Thomas DiSalvo, who plays Watkins, along with the other parts made famous by Sears, such as Aunt Pearl and Bertha Bumiller. His brother, Dillon, plays the Williams part, between them 22 characters in all.
The Maryland-born brothers formed the company initially as a passion project, but it soon grew into a semi-vocation, even though they all still maintain day jobs (Frank is a noted local sound designer). The small, professional company has done everything from Dial M for Murder to Alice in Wonderland to Neil Simon’s Fools, “which we tackled knowing it was his worst play,” says Frank. And even though they have grown to include other company members, the three brothers remain the company’s core.
“We are closer because of it,” says Frank. “If anything, it gives us a reason to be together when we maybe wouldn’t have a reason to. Especially with this play, where it’s just us three in the rehearsal room. It feels very special, and there are times when we’ll be in the middle of rehearsal, and something happens, and we all break out into laughter that can’t stop. I think to myself about how rare this is, how special it is, to be able to do this with my brothers.”
A Tuna Christmas runs Friday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 9, and Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. At the Callan Theatre at Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Tickets are $16 to $20. Call 202-460-2188 or visit parlorroomtheater.com.
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