Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: A notorious murderer and bank robber is gut shot, hogtied and left for dead under the blazing Oklahoma sun, when along comes a guitar-carrying singing cowboy to save the day. Or, at the very least, to irritate the dying man so thoroughly that he begs for a quick and painless mercy-killing.
While that might SOUND like a familiar plot from a 1940s movie serial, Jeff Daniels’ latest play is anything but. Instead, “Panhandle Slim and The Oklahoma Kid” is an insightful journey through a dying man’s final moments – when past sins are revisited and unrealized dreams are mourned. But while Destiny may have dealt Panhandle Slim a losing hand, Daniels delivers yet another smartly written comedy that will surely rustle up enthusiastic crowds this summer at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Slim, after finding himself on the receiving end of a deadly bullet, is dragged across a prairie and dumped miles from nowhere, with only hungry vultures as witnesses. Amidst hallucinations comes The Oklahoma Kid, a virtuous cowboy who discovers the blood-soaked villain while passing by. Rather than untie the scoundrel, however, the born chatterbox engages him in conversation and song. There’s more to the visit than meets the eye, of course. But eventually, as the Kid proclaims, Slim learns the answers to all his questions – while the audience discovers there’s a song for just about anything.
Well, not quite. In actuality, six original songs written by Daniels (and one traditional hymn) help move the plot along. But unlike a traditional musical in which the songs often feel shoehorned into the story, Daniels works his naturally into the production. After all, The Oklahoma Kid IS a singing cowboy, and “That reminds me of a song” fits the concept perfectly.
But even more snug are Tom Whalen and John Seibert as the play’s title characters.
Seibert shines as the effervescent Kid who sees beauty in everything – even a cold-blooded killer. There’s always a twinkle in his eye and a song in his heart, yet Seibert never loses sight of the Kid’s humanity. Particularly skillful is the way he portrays the sight-unseen Buttermilk, his faithful companion; because HE sees the horse, the audience does too. (His guitar-pluckin’ is pretty darn good, too.)
Whalen, tossed a challenge by the playwright when he created the character with the actor in mind, brings Slim to life with his hands tied behind his back and unable to stand. Such limitations serve the actor well, however, as his body becomes an important tool to help color the story. In addition, Whalen vocally and facially interprets to perfection every emotional beat within the text. That’s particular true late in the show when he worriedly scans the sky for his beloved Annabelle – and finally finds her.
Secondary roles are nicely played by Jessica Garrett and Phil Powers. Powers is especially memorable as Horse Face Johnson – for obvious reasons.
Direction by Guy Sanville – as always – is slick and well-conceived.
So, too, is the amazingly realistic set by Dennis G. Crawley (which I suspect almost everyone in the audience was tempted to walk across to see if the sand and rock are real). Light design by Reid G. Johnson and Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design are also well-executed.
‘Panhandle Slim and The Oklahoma Kid’
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Through Aug. 30. Tickets: $25-$38. For information: 734-433-7673 or http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.