‘Escanaba in Love’
Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wed.-Sun., through Dec. 23. Tickets: $25-$35. For information: (734) 433-7673 or http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
Few locally produced plays earn the title “legendary,” but Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in da Moonlight” ranks near the top of the list. For not only did tickets fly out the box office window at Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre during its 1995 and 1997 runs, it later became the longest-running play in Detroit-area history after a 16-month gig at the Gem Theatre – a record it held until topped last year by “Menopause the Musical.”
No one – let alone the playwright – ever thought the popular Soady family would return in a new production. But inspiration struck, and the Daniels’ prequel, “Escanaba in Love,” premiered this past weekend on the stage of his Chelsea theater.
And maybe – just maybe – lightning will indeed strike twice!
Like its predecessor – or its sequel, depending on how confusing we want to make this – “Love” is once again set in the Soady deer camp northwest of Escanaba. This time, the year is 1944 and Albert Soady – the only returning character from “Moonlight” – is now 18-years-old and a day away from joining the army. Following his physical, Junior arrives at the family camp not with his hunting rifle, but with a wife, Big Betty Balou, whom he just won in a kissing contest at a local watering hole.
This does not sit well with daddy, Albert Soady Sr. – and not just because women aren’t allowed in the Soady camp. So to prove her worthiness as a Soady, the elder Albert issues several impossible tasks for Big Betty to complete. Can she accomplish them? Or will her “history” doom her marriage before it’s even consummated?
Whereas the original comedy is “the buck story to end all buck stories,” “Love” is the yooper love tale only hinted at in “Moonlight.” Daniels brings back much of what made “Moonlight” appealing, but his growth as a playwright is also evident. For amidst the oddball characters, clever dialogue and plentiful laughs, Daniels deftly explores a serious subject that’s often ignored in today’s faster-paced society: the importance of family bonds and traditions.
Other bonds and traditions are also visible.
Daniels’ frequent collaborator, director Guy Sanville, has once again staged a slick, first-rate production – yet another in a very long string of excellence.
And it takes only minutes in to the show to appreciate Daniels’ decision to tailor some of his characters to match the skills of specific actors. Watching the dynamite team of Will David Young (as Great Grandpa Alphonse Soady), Paul Hopper (Albert Sr.) and Wayne David Parker (“Salty” Jim Negamanee) is sheer joy, as each proves why he is a master of his craft.
Jake Christensen, a virgin to the PRTC stage, is totally believable as the strong, calm but virginal young buck, Albert Jr.
Another newcomer, Charlyn Swarthout, makes an impressive entrance as Big Betty and never drops the intensity. But one important moment on opening night wasn’t totally clear: It seemed as if Swarthout couldn’t decide what voice to use during a brief visit from the afterworld, which left us wondering who exactly was speaking – and when.