‘Escanaba in Love’
Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street, Chelsea. Previews Oct. 4-5; runs Wed.-Sun., Oct. 6-Dec. 23. Tickets: $25-$35. For information: 734-433-7673 or http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
Comedy revisits the Soady clan with ‘Escanaba In Love’
CHELSEA – If, years ago, a fortuneteller had gazed in to her crystal ball and told actor/author Jeff Daniels that one day he’d be attending the world premiere of “Escanaba In Love,” a prequel to his enormously popular “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” the playwright would have laughed and asked for his money back.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happening Friday, Oct. 6, when the Soady deer camp returns to the stage of the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
“There was never an intention of a sequel or a prequel,” Daniels told BTL prior to a recent rehearsal. “‘Moonlight’ was a ‘one-and-only.’ It was a one-shot.”
But that was before the wacky Yoopers played to sold-out houses in Chelsea, set a then-16-week record at Detroit’s Gem Theatre and spawned an independent film. “It just kept feeding on itself,” Daniels recalled.
The characters’ appeal, Daniels believes, is that they are simultaneously familiar, yet larger-than-life. “This is a fable, of sorts. ‘Moonlight’ really was. By the second or third draft I realized that I was writing ‘the buck story to end all buck stories.'”
What’s being hunted in the prequel is not a buck, however, but a girl. Daniels calls it “a backwoods ‘Romeo and Juliet.'”
The year is 1944, and 18-year-old Albert Soady Jr. – the father of Reuben and Remnar in the original production – has just enlisted in the U.S. Army. On his way home he stops at the Porcelain Bar where he meets the woman of his dreams. “It’s the night he meets Big Betty Balou. And then it becomes whether or not Big Betty Balou is accepted in all things Soady. There’s a little problem there.”
What wasn’t a problem was writing the script. “Writing is hard, but this was the easiest play I’ve ever written,” Daniels said. “Because once I was in to it, I could hear them talk. I didn’t have to create the tone; I didn’t have to create a sense of humor – I already knew what worked and how they spoke. So it was a lot of listening. It was like they were waiting – ‘We’re so glad you’re going to write this play; let us help you.’ And it really was a lot of fun.”
Daniels created the characters after co-starring with Jim Carrey in the 1994 movie “Dumb and Dumber.” Although everyone involved with the project knew it would play well to 15-year-old boys, the film industry was stunned when a much broader audience turned it into the number one movie for several weeks. Daniels took careful note of that. “I’ve always been interested in getting those people who thought movies like ‘Dumb and Dumber’ were so funny in to my theater. I was tired of the American Theater catering to only the two percent that goes to a play.”
So Daniels kicked around ideas on how to do just that, until “five guys in a deer camp” came to him. A favorite book, “Danny and the Boys” by John Voelker – writing under the name Robert Traver – helped him decide to place the camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “How he wrote the dialogue is how I wrote the dialogue in the play,” he acknowledged. “It was as if it was a different language.”
With the plot firmly taking shape, the playwright was left with only one question: How outrageous could he make it? “The whole fart sequence in the second act – I remember I was on the ‘Fly Away Home’ set and thinking, ‘How am I going to get Rueben out of this trance?’ Then it was like, ‘Oh, God! Can I possibly do that?'”
Yes he could, and the result is one of the most memorable scenes from “Escanaba in da Moonlight.”
Still – even with the show’s eventual success – there was never a thought towards a sequel. Instead, the playwright went off in a different direction with such heavier fare as “Boom Town,” “Across the Way” and “Guest Artist.” But then inspiration hit in the form of his mentor, playwright Lanford Wilson. “I knew of his trilogy, because I was there for ‘Fifth of July.’ I watched him walk in with a play called ‘Talley’s Folley’ two years later based on the same family, and then a few years later with ‘A Tale Told’ – the same house, a different decade.”
So about two or three years ago, Daniels began considering the idea. “Maybe there’s something there,” he thought. “But I didn’t want to go forwards.”
Instead, Daniels was inspired in part by the owner of the camp Daniels used to shoot the movie. “You know, this camp ain’t changed in 30 years,” he was told.
“So the fact that something could be so static led me to go backwards,” Daniels said.
Fans of the original shouldn’t expect to see all of their old favorites, as only Albert Junior returns in the prequel. What they WILL see, however, are several of the theaters most popular actors in roles Daniels tailored specifically for them. “I definitely wanted to write for Paul Hopper. I knew he would be perfect for the center of this whole thing, so from day one he was [Albert] Soady Sr. But I didn’t have a Betty in mind, or a Junior. Will David Young early on became Alphonse. Of course, you’re always assuming these guys want to do this,” he laughed.
Initially, Daniels didn’t want any of the actors from the original show in this production, but when Wayne David Parker auditioned for the role of a crazy boat builder, something clicked. “You idiot,” Daniels thought to himself. “Here you’ve got the actor who played Jimmer Negamanee, 10 years older; make him the uncle or something. So I changed [the character’s] name, and now we have Salty Jim Negamanee. He’s equally odd. Now you tailor it to [Parker] and see how far you can go with it.”
And just how far is Daniels willing to go? Theatergoers will have to find that out for themselves in “Escanaba In Love” – and the third, unscheduled chapter in this backwards trilogy.