By John Quinn, Special To CBS Detroit
I approached this assignment with some trepidation, since I knew the actors would all be armed and it’s always open season on theater critics. The fact that The Purple Rose Theatre has a disturbing habit of getting everything so right that there is little to carp about tempered my fears – even though the seating was such that any actor could have taken down three critics with one shot. But I digress.
“Escanaba in da Moonlight,” probably the most popular of playwright/actor Jeff Daniels’ works, opened at The Purple Rose in the 1995 season and was revived in 1997. It returns through Dec. 17 at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park, Chelsea.
The setting is the generations-old, “world famous” Soady family deer camp north of Escanaba. It’s the eve of deer season’s opening day, 1989. Patriarch Albert Soady is meeting his sons, Reuben and Remnar, for the annual hunt.
At 33, Reuben is about to become the oldest Soady on record to have never bagged a buck. His luck is so bad Dad and Bro think he’s jinxed. Superstition gets the better of them when it’s discovered Reuben “bucks” tradition and ditched the pasties for a concoction mixed up by his Potawatomi-born wife, Wolf Moon Dance.
The arrival of friend Jimmer Negamanee (from Menominee) heralds a series of weird events that confirm the suspicion that Reuben is cursed. It’s the “bright white light” that is the most mysterious occurrence of all. The dazzled Ranger Tom, the Department of Natural Resources man on the ground, thinks he’s met God. Jimmer thinks it’s a UFO. Reuben thinks it’s an omen.
Amid all the farce and physical humor, there is a profound undercurrent of truth. While these men view deer hunting as a means of providing venison for the family, it is also a ritual of almost religious import. Saturated with both tradition and superstition, the hunt forms bonds between companions and between generations. As Albert puts it, opening day is “… like Christmas with guns.” Daniels touches on the endurance of these rites; from the Potawatomi who first hunted the U. P. to the Europeans who came later, even to exploring the relative efficacy of rosaries versus porcupine urine for dispelling evil spirits.
The production is directed by Purple Rose Artistic Director (and Escanaba native) Guy Sandville. He’s aided and abetted by a stellar cast. The Soady clan is represented by Jim Porterfield (Albert), Michael Brian Ogden (Reuben) and Matthew David (Remnar). Joining them are Nate Mitchell as Ranger Tom Treado and Rhiannon Ragland in a brief but significant appearance as Wolf Moon Dance.
Who the general audience is unlikely to forget is the irrepressible Wayne David Parker in the role he originated, Jimmer Negamanee. From his first wild and wooly entrance he’s an absolute firecracker of energy, putting a lasting claim on his loveable character. The speech-challenged Jimmer, addled by alien abduction and large quantities of whiskey, is one of the most original characters in the American theater. Parker is also at the center of the most extensive flatulence joke ever.
It’s unusual to leave the theater humming the technical work, but this time it was appropriate. Taken individually, Dennis G. Crawley’s set and Dana White’s lighting are outstanding; together they’re even better. Suzanne Young’s wise and funny costuming is just right, from Jimmer’s multi-layered furs to Remnar’s duct-taped flannel shirt. But what is still ringing in my head is Quintessa Gallinat’s stunning (literally) sound design; it’s pitch-perfect from soft, ghostly whispers to the wall-shaking thunder of a deer herd.
It’s a rare treat to see a play back in the place where it all began. In one fell swoop, the Purple Rose Theatre Company has put both Escanaba AND Chelsea on the map.
“Escanaba In Da Moonlight” plays Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 17 at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park, Chelsea; tickets, $25-$40; www.purplerosetheatre.org.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.encoremichigan.com/, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.