Happy trails lead to Chelsea this summer

From male flight attendants ("The Vast Difference"), action heroes ("Thy Kingdom's Coming") and lovers ("Apartment 3A"), to Yoopers ("Escanaba in da Moonlight"), thespians ("Guest Artist") and sisters ("Norma & Wanda"), Jeff Daniels has entertained audiences with nearly a dozen tales about life and relationships in modern-day America. So what would possess the 53-year-old playwright to resurrect for his twelfth script a once-popular fixture in American entertainment that most believed would never again see the light of day?
"I could just hear him," Daniels said of the singing cowboy in "Panhandle Slim & The Oklahoma Kid" that opens in previews June 19 at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
It was a voice that, for nearly a decade, couldn't grab the playwright's attention. "I had made several attempts at this two-hander," Daniels explained. "I tried everything I could think of to make it work – three or four different versions of it. The last one that we read in November – five minutes in to it, one of the (two) actors just stops and turns to the audience and apologizes, 'This play is just not worthy of your time or your money. Or my time.'"
Daniels agreed. But with a slot at the end of the theater's 2007-08 schedule already reserved for him and a February 25 deadline looming, the playwright told theater executives not to worry – and then left town for a series of concert dates. However, inspiration struck during a 19-hour trek through Oklahoma. "I was thinking about the play as I drove. What if it was in Oklahoma? What if it was the prairie? What if it was a singing cowboy? What if – that's the great writer's (tool). It gets you out of writer's block every time," Daniels said.
Much of the story had been worked out in his head by the time the author arrived home February 1. Then it was just a matter of sitting down for the next month or so and committing it to paper. "Once I clicked on to finding the good in even bad people and the bad in even good people, then it was all downhill."
The result, said director and longtime collaborator Guy Sanville, "is not quite like anything that's been done before."
In "Panhandle Slim," an outlaw is shot and left for dead on an Oklahoma prairie. Over the hill comes a singing cowboy who keeps him company. "Much to his chagrin," Daniels grinned. "He's a captive audience, and they discuss the meaning of life as only cowboys can."
A singing cowboy, that is – which means through a song or two. (Or maybe eight.)
Casting the cowboys proved easy, since Daniels wrote the script with John Seibert (The Oklahoma Kid) and Tom Whalen (Panhandle Slim) in mind for the roles. "The challenge is to steer them into something you know they can do, but they haven't done it yet, versus just writing to their bag of tricks," Daniels said.
Whalen, especially, will be charting new territory for himself.


'Panhandle Slim & The Oklahoma Kid'
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. June 19 – Aug. 30. Tickets: previews, $20-$25; all others $25-$38. For information: 734-433-7673 or