Escanaba in da Moonlight
October 6, 2011
The Rogue in Purple Rose Theatre Co., Reviews

Playwright Jeff Daniels’s Escanaba in da Moonlight has forged a legacy for itself since its world-premiere production at Purple Rose Theatre Company a decade and a half ago. Now, under the direction of Guy Sanville, the play that sparked a trilogy returns to its original home. As this actually marks the first time this reviewer has ever seen the show, I’m unable to provide any sense of comparison with other stagings. However, it’s clear from this “reloaded” offering why the Purple Rose couldn’t resist another shot: with a tale this silly, folksy, eerie, warm, and improbable all rolled into one comedy full of Michigan flavor, it’s hard to imagine staying away.

Jim Porterfield plays the curmudgeonly narrator and family patriarch, Albert Soady; although he professes little patience for the so-called fudgesuckers of Michigan’s lower peninsula, it’s hard not to be won over by his staunch Yooper pride (for the uninitiated, the label is derived from U.P. for “upper peninsula”). In point of fact, Albert has little patience for anything but hunting, including the near-constant ribbing between his two sons, Reuben (Michael Brian Ogden) and Remnar (Matthew David). When we meet them on the anticipatory night before 1989 deer season opens, Remnar is primarily occupied with taunting Reuben for never having bagged a buck of his own. In fact, the reluctantly nicknamed Buckless Yooper is about to become the oldest member of his lineage to hold that dishonor — this year is do or die for him. Ogden ably embodies the hopelessness, ambition, and failure of never measuring up, which turns his every spoken word into a vital entreaty for his family to take him seriously (which backfires by virtue of his wanting it so frantically). David’s Remnar, a creature of habit and superstitions (cheers to costume designer Suzanne Young for his clumsily preserved lucky shirt), provides an efficient foil when Reuben asks to leave aside tradition just this once. Much of the first act is concerned with bizarre, half-understood Native American rituals Reuben learned from his wife, Wolf Moon Dance (Rhiannon Ragland), blending laughed-off mumbo jumbo and pure lowest-common-denominator nastiness, the disgustingly funny stuff of spit takes (for which we have properties designer Danna Segrest to thank).

Yet something else is afoot on this fateful night, a supernatural presence that manifests when the childlike Ranger Tom (Nate Mitchell) enters. The reviled Department of Natural Resources stooge is fresh from a vision of God and departs from reality entirely; fortunately, Mitchell’s dedicated fugue state is characterized by impeccable comic timing. By then, Albert has already exposited about UFO and spirit activity in the U.P., with exhibit A being the hunting party’s fourth member and surrogate drunk uncle. And, ultimately, even with all the perfectly strong elements in the show, here lies reason enough to attend, full stop: Wayne David Parker as Jimmer Negamanee. Embodying the role he originated, Parker dominates a perpetual-motion speech impediment and elevates space-age eccentricity — and, yes, protracted flatulence so extravagant it requires its own strobe effect — into an art form. This is a character and a role of legend, and my expectations were accordingly high; the fact that Parker exceeded them all with laughter to spare makes this a must-see performance of the run-don’t-walk variety.

Even so, no single character dominates; instead, the production finds several stories and styles crowding to the fore, and they all manage to coexist in a flurry of shifting tones that keep viewers on edge. Much of the changing atmosphere is attributable to Quintessa Gallinat’s pulsing, disconcerting sound design and the uncontrolled extremes of Dana White’s lighting, which together help the performers fling the plot from the underdog strains of a small-scale folktale to the terrifying isolation of a monster movie to the overblown gross-outs of a buddy comedy without even stopping for breath. The action is confined to the quaint dilapidation of the Soady deer camp, which set designer Dennis G. Crawley lends a beloved ruggedness while also replicating the kind of encroaching, texture-rich night sky unique to remote places. Idyllic, inexplicable, terrifying — this script calls for everything, and the production team provides.

Escanaba in da Moonlight is quite simply a staple of theater in this region. Although viewers will undoubtedly have other opportunities to see future iterations, Parker’s return is draw enough to the current production, and this slickly lowbrow farce offers much more besides.

Escanaba in da Moonlight is no longer playing.
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