July 11 2012 12:00 AM

Actors hunt for laughs in Jeff Daniels' U.P. farce


On the same day Lansing broke a new heat record, the cast of “Escanaba in da Moonlight” — inside the non-air-conditioned Ledges Playhouse — soldiered on in long underwear and flannel.

“Holy Wah!” 

This may not have been the strongest production of the Jeff Daniels staple, but it was surely the sweatiest.

The story of “buckless Yooper” Reuben Soady has has spawned two prequels since its premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in 1995, but the original remains the purest and the raunchiest.

Like the protagonist in Pixar’s “Brave,” Reuben (Adam Carlson) seeks to change his fate — in his case, that would mean shaking off the stigma of being the oldest Soady to never shoot a deer. With the aid of traditional Ojibwa ceremonial charms like moose testicle milkshakes and porcupine urine, Reuben hopes to bag his first kill and lift his “curse.” But the sweetening of the sap whiskey and the absence of traditional pasties threaten to ruin the hunting fortunes of every other superstitious member of his party, including his brother and father.

In addition to sporting an impressive beard, Carlson maintains the most consistent Yooper accent. His strongest scene comes at the end of the first act when an ethereal voice sends him into a trance. Carlson´s face becomes a perfect blend of awe and terror in a chilling effect.

Reuben´s father, Albert (Michael Erwine), narrates the story with smiling smugness. Albert has some of the show´s best lines (including “If you want to go to Heaven, it´s north of the bridge”), but at times Erwine looks like he´s just memorized them.

Justin Brewer, as Reuben´s brother, Remnar, demonstrates his physical agility, while George Berghorn as Ranger Tom  from the Department of Natural Resources contrasts his silly Superman skivvies with his silky singing voice. Ann Carlson rounds out the cast with her walk-on role as Wolf Moon Dance.

As Jimmer Nagamanee, the alien-abducted Yooper with an exaggerated Sean Connery-style speech impediment, Joseph Dickson´s commitment to character often outshines his peers (Dickson played the same role five years ago when the show was produced at the Ledges Playhouse). From downing entire Mason jars of questionable liquids in one take to playing the “butt” of jokes, Dickson´s energy sets a high bar.

Dickson also designed nearly all of the technical elements, from lighting and sound to the set. Dressed with antlers, gun racks and sanded wood, the set blends beautifully with the Ledges theater, while the surround-sound system with sub-woofers and precisely timed lights makes moments of spooky ambiance into a spectacle.

Still, even surefire comic scripts like “Escanaba” depend on carefully timed delivery to ensure constant laughs. Director Michael Hays knows where the comic beats are supposed to land, but between the actors’ broad physical gestures and some mugging to the audience, the show rarely builds the momentum it needs.

Hopefully, cooler weather will allow the cast to make “Escanaba” more than a test of actor endurance.

‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’

Over the Ledge Theatre Co.

Ledges Playhouse

137 Fitzgerald Park Dr., Grand Ledge

8 p.m. Thursday, July 12, Friday, July 13 and Saturday, July 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, July 15

$10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 students

(517) 318-0579