By Judith Cookis Rubens
It’s February, with a recent blizzard to prove it, but inside Farmers Alley Theatre, you’d swear it was November, on the eve of deer hunting season in the U.P.
The Kalamazoo theater has transformed into the rustic Soady Deer Camp, just north of Escanaba, the setting for Jeff Daniels’ comedy, “Escanaba in Da Moonlight.” It was the spark that ignited a trilogy (prequels include “Escanaba in Love” and “Escanaba”) to skewer and honor Yooper culture.
For “fudge sucking trolls” (those of us in the Lower Peninsula) who don’t get what all the fuss is about, the Soady men are more than happy to explain hunting rituals: the whiskey, the Euchre, the pasty pies, the anticipation of the hunt. “It’s like Christmas. With guns.” ‘Nuff said.
Skillfully narrated by the elder Albert Soady (Mike Helms), we meet brothers Reuben (Ben Gougeon) and Remnar (Mitch Voss). At 35, Reuben’s feeling cursed, considering he’s about to go down in family record books as the oldest Soady to never bag a buck. His American Indian wife, Wolf Moon Dance (Anna Mundo), is a better shot, he laments. Desperate to change his luck, and against the pleas of his superstitious comrades, he alters camp rituals.
Then things get weird. The men start seeing visions of weird creatures; pal Jimmer’s Impala bursts into flames; the sweet sap whiskey curdles into syrup; a ranger from the hated Department of Natural Resources claims he’s seen God in a flash of light. Then Reuben himself is awakened by the light.
Is it aliens? Native spirits? God?
The absurdity of the whole plot spins dizzily into one oddly sentimental resolution, but you’ll be too busy laughing to worry about whether it all adds up.
Daniels deftly pokes fun at Yoopers and other-side-of-the-bridge folks. “Escanaba” has sometimes been written off as outlandish slapstick, but its underlying themes of respect for family and the land grounds it in reality.
The hearty laughs, however, come directly from energetic sight gags and “Dumb and Dumber”-style salty humor.
This Farmers Alley cast goes all out, from authentic accents and strong physical comedy, to one well-choreographed, cringe-worthy fart joke. The set-up is almost funnier than the actual, ahem, delivery.
Director D. Terry Williams keeps the genuine laughs coming fast, but knows when to slow down for a tender moment.
Gougeon, especially, communicates his character’s longing, making Reuben more than just a caricature. Bagging the buck isn’t just about bragging rights. It’s about proving something to his family and himself. Who can’t relate to that?
Voss has playful fun as chiding brother Remnar, a man so superstitious he’s worn the same shirt on opening day since he was 9.
Bruce Bennett wrings every laugh out of strange-sounding Jimmer Negamanee, a family pal and woodsman who’s rumored to have survived an alien abduction. Bennett commits to his character – crazy speech and all – throughout the wildest bits.
Tim Eschelbach adds laughs as the spooked ranger who wanders into camp and strips down.
W. Douglas Blickle’s pleasant cabin set pays attention to every detail, and evokes the familiar feel of annual family vacations.
Sound and lighting are crucial elements to this story, and both were well-designed, with only a slight sound execution glitch on opening night.
Even if hunting isn’t your thing, this is a must-see show for any Michigander. Or anyone who wants a laugh, eh?
‘Escanaba in Da Moonlight’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 27 (except no performance Feb. 24). $21-$25. 239-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com