'Escanaba in da Moonlight' makes welcome return to the Purple Rose
photo by Sean Carter | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.
No matter your preference or your peninsular predilections, you’re likely to get a kick out of the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s revival of Jeff Daniels’ by-now-immortal Yooper deer-camp comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” The show opened Friday—with camo-clothed ushers directing patrons to their seats—and runs through mid-December.
Camo, the young woman at the box-office window reported, is a color—at least according to a friend’s deer-hunting dad. If that’s the case, no one understands the shade better than director Guy Sanville—Escanaba native Guy Sanville, that would be, taking a shot at the show again after directing it at PRTC at its 1995 premiere and its previous 1997 revival there.
Sanville takes near-perfect aim at this comedy about the Soady clan, gathered at their camp on the eve of deer-season opening day. And in harmony with the notion that “All good things come to those who shoot straight”—a favorite saying of the oft-quoted Soady patriarch Alphonse—Sanville’s all-Michigan cast, which includes two actors re-creating roles from previous productions, does ample and hilarious justice to Daniels’ material, to say nothing of their way with Yooper accents and turns of speech.
And what material it is. “Escanaba” is an “It Happened One Night” tale, filled with fabulous characters and supernatural occurrences that just might thwart the latest attempt of 30-something son Reuben (Michael Brian Ogden) to shed the mantle of being “a buckless Yooper.”
It doesn’t help that his family—dad Albert (Jim Porterfield) and brother Remnar (Matthew David)—think he’s cursed. They’d like to assign him a hunting spot near the highway, far, far away from the prime locations they’ve staked out for themselves. And they see it as a bad omen when instead of bringing the traditional pasties—tradition’s a big theme here—he brings concoctions his Potawatomi wife, Wolf Moon Dance (Rhiannon Ragland), has recommended to favor happy hunting.
Porterfield, reprising the role he created, is riveting. In his bentwood rocker at the center of set designer Dennis Crawley’s rustic hunting cabin, he anchors the play—as father, as narrator, as keeper of the flame. Whether he’s excoriating his sons or the audience—he suspects we’re all a bunch of “brie-belchin’ trolls”—whether he’s musing on his late wife’s virtues (“lips like a sturgeon”), he is wry and real, delivering his lines with wonderful wit and rapier-sharp timing. Ogden and David do likewise with their roles as the two sons as they spar both verbally and physically.
Remnar can’t stand it that brother Reuben may be jinxing them—his agitation plays out in words that tumble into each other and a lisp that grows with his anxiety. His speech problem, though, is nothing compared to that of the play’s most memorable character, Jimmer Negamanee, played by the original creator, Wayne David Parker. Translation is required (and provided by other characters) for his alcohol- and alien-addled speech—it’s like a foreign tongue, acquired in his week in space when a “hoovering” UFO picked him up. Parker’s physical comedy is as dextrous as his wayward way with words. The cast is completed by the excellent Nate Mitchell as Daniels’ delusional DNR man, Ranger Tom, deadpan and delightful as he bursts into the cabin to the dismay of its other denizens. It’s as fun to watch him strip down to his skivvies (the un-hunting hit of costume designer Suzanne Young’s work here) as it is to listen to him ramble.
You don’t have to be a Yooper, or even a Michigander, to enjoy the fun Daniels pokes at both north and south. It’s all tempered with a sort of good humor and love for custom and legend that’s awfully appealing. The play has few slow spots, and in this superb revival, Daniels’ writing gleams as bright as the moon hanging in the dark U.P. sky, minus, of course, the numerous UFOs.
"Escanaba in da Moonlight" continues through Dec. 17. Tickets: 734-433-7673 or the Purple Rose website.