Winneshiek Playhouse produces comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight” at its 91st season opener. The community theatre returns with a beehive of activity with much talent and energy, on stage and off, to entertain audiences and bring back more.
‘Escanaba’ finds a cast of five feisty men in a deer camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There are bears and bucks waiting, but first a father, two sons and a local drunk must yee-ha their way through whiskey and beer all around. Testosterone is in full gusto with muscled manliness as they celebrate their way through decibels of shouting and boasting. A cathartic rise in chaos through a game of Euchre is followed by deadly quiet of suspicion that someone’s cheating. Such are the rhythms and moods that intensify with each swig of alcohol.
There is gradually a diversion into the imaginary as all seem to experience an evil spirit amidst. From there, the action gnaws at their rough edges as the invisible Native American woman becomes very present with her riotous and disgusting potions. Their manhood unravels, especially at the entrance of the Ranger who has “seen God.” It appears that this play is actually woman-driven.
The 2001 play in two acts was written by Jeff Daniels whose familiar list of credits includes “Ragtime,” Oscar film “Terms of Endearment” and “Dumb and Dumber.” If his voice of American comedy were not enough, he wrote a list of stage plays besides ‘Escanaba’ including comedy “Apartment 3-A” and another “Escanaba in Love.”
For ‘Escanaba,’ Daniels inherited an honest claim to the plotline since he was raised a certified Michigander. His roots were in the Southern part of the mitten-shaped state but like most Michiganders, he headed north at times to seemingly another world, another culture.
The Upper Peninsula is far from the flowers and gardens we know down here. Our fertile soil turns sandy up there and our variety of trees turns pine and white birch. They eat pasties and savor more venison; they speak with a Yooper dialect. And there are bears. Too far away from us.
Look again at the map, however. Since we think of Michigan all the way over there, through Chicago’s traffic jam, the bottleneck of Indiana and Ohio at the bottom of Lake Michigan, then forever on the road upward and across the five-mile bridge, it seems that Escanaba must be on another planet. Forget all that. Just point a full tank due north from Illinois and travel a straight shot upward through Wisconsin and stop before you fall into frigid Lake Superior. You’re there without much fanfare.
‘Escanaba’ director Joe Schemel at WP notes the common wisdom that there is nothing funny about comedy. Whether farce, slapstick or any kind of humor, timing has no free-throws. It’s either there in its delicate form, or misses entirely. Schemel has drawn handily from his background in communications to achieve a thriving banter with this cast. The hilarity seems to rise intact from script to stage.
Schemel has also been in the thick of production with the most cabin-like cabin with help from cast and crew as well as lighting design with Ash Ahrens.
Glen Wiegert as the father Albert Soady has all the masterful rough edges and bombastic aura it takes to dominate the stage. He also appears strongly as a narrator of action at times where he steps into a pool of light while others freeze into a most effective time-stopping tableau.
Craig Downing as his son Rueben Soady is larger than life, but perhaps jinxed and under pressure to get his first buck. He has angst with his brother Remnar, well-played by Andrew Reid who is a little off, a little volatile.
Jamie Button as The Jimmer is hysterical upon his drunken entrance. He sloshes through his words and makes disgusting noises at every turn. His very presence is mighty when he stands still, but when he describes something, he seems to burst through his overalls. He brings much experience with this play and “Escanaba in Love” from Pec Playhouse as a notable character actor. Barrick Tormohlen as Ranger Tom is humorously less official as he enters with bulging eyes of confusion.
Hysterical “Escanaba in da Moonlight” officially opens tomorrow evening (Friday) and runs 10, 16, 17 evening shows, all at 7:30 p.m., and 2 p.m. matinee on 18. Additionally, TONIGHT is a special performance at 7:30 on a pay-as-you-can offer, so walk-ins are encouraged. Tickets and information at (815) 232-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org.