By Martin F. Kohn
Everyone else these days is going hybrid, so why not Jeff Daniels? His new play, “Escanaba,” spends most of its time as a hunting-camp comedy, then does a hairpin turn on two wheels and – SPOILER ALERT – becomes in flashback the tale of a wounded Yankee soldier and a runaway slave.
As its Upper Peninsula protagonists might (and do) say, Holy wah!
Sure, low humor and high purpose can coexist, but in trying to achieve both, “Escanaba” doesn’t really succeed at either.
The play comes with a pedigree. It’s the third, and presumably final, installment in Daniels’ series about life at the Soady family deer camp that began in 1995 with the tremendously popular “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” That play, set in the present, is all place, character and coarse physical humor, with a thin narrative line about a man nearing middle age who has yet to shoot his first buck.
In 2006 Daniels followed it up with “Escanaba in Love,” a prequel set in the 1940s, which has several strong narrative lines and well-developed characters.
The latest “Escanaba,” with the shortest title and, at 75 minutes (and no intermission), shortest running time, takes place in 1922. Alphonse Soady (Tom Whalen) has just built himself a rustic cabin. Under his breath he murmurs a poem, something about “a place to call your own/ a place to be alone,” gives the rocking chair at center stage a reverent little push and ceremonially lifts a flask of whiskey to it. It was, we will learn, his late father’s chair.
As Alphonse wrestles to install an obstinate front door, he is startled by animal noises outside and he is soon joined by a stranger fleeing a bear.
The man introduces himself as James Negamanee from Menominee (Wayne David Parker). He may be a stranger to Alphonse, but anyone familiar with the “Escanaba” canon will recognize him instantly. There has been a Negamanee in each play, and Parker has played them all in their world premiere productions at the Purple Rose Theatre.
The two actors are perfectly cast. Parker’s grubby, outspoken James is a perfect counterweight to Whalen’s tidy, soft-spoken Alphonse, and director Guy Sanville takes advantage of, but never overplays, their differences. The two ultimately find common ground when James eats a pasty that Alphonse has cooked on the wood stove and pronounces it the best he has ever tasted.
When Alphonse reveals the pasty’s secret ingredient, the audience is primed for a world-class spit take (we’ve already been treated to the obligatory Soady deer camp fart) but it never comes. Daniels, Sanville and company are just full of surprises.
The biggest of all is the disconcerting flashback to the Civil War with Parker taking on the role of Alphonse’s soldier father, Whalen as silent bystander and a third actor, Julian Gant, holding his own as the runaway slave.
Daniels does connect the two stories – the unifying theme is the sacredness of place – but whether he does so convincingly is open to debate. May Detroit’s automakers have better luck with their hybrids.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday through Sunday (with an occasional Tuesday) through Dec. 19. $20-$38. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org