Spirit of the wild

By Paul Wozniak

Final chapter for Soady takes metaphysical twist

As the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea hasn’t gone a season without a world premiere, “Escanaba” softly checks the box for this year. Jeff Daniels’ latest work steps back up to the U.P. and back in time to the origins of the Soady Deer Camp. But “Escanaba” is not just another story at the camp; it is the story that lays the legendary foundation for the rest to follow.

“Escanaba” takes a more serious, existential turn than its theatrical predecessors, returning instead to the shamanistic spiritualism humorously introduced in “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” and the inter-connectedness between man and nature. “Escanaba” is also a story of father and son, of hunting the first buck and the ethereal power of that rite of passage. In “Escanaba,” Daniels postulates the ramifications of when the “first buck” rite is disrupted and, in doing so, lifts the veil of the literal world to go beyond what is believable to what is possible.

In the fall of 1922, the patriarch of the Soady clan, Alphonse (Tom Whalen) has almost completed construction of his home away from home, the notyet-named “World Famous Soady Deer Camp.” For now, its hand-built humble origins are evident in Alphonse’s attempts to install the front door. Before he can nail in the hinges, a haunting howl precedes a frightened James Negamanee “from Menomonee” (Wayne David Parker), desperately seeking refuge from a black bear. As James makes himself at home despite protests from Alphonse, he also begins to antagonize his height advantaged host.

What starts as a sparring episode of “The Odd Couple” up north turns into an exploration into Alphonse’s memories of his father, the stories he was told, and the story he decides to tell his progeny.

Whalen and Parker infuse their initial scenes with a deliciously combative chemistry. Whalen is superbly understated, as the straight and civil type who hides a secret, while Parker seems just as equally mal-adjusted and unrefined, until he discovers the true source of their conflict. Parker ultimateing his range by the contrast between the two characters.

The men are later joined by “Black Jack” (Julian Grant), a runaway slave within Alphonse’s mind and his father’s stories. Grant’s focused, intense delivery gives the second half of the show a deeper layer.

While the initial transition from the real world to Alphonse’s father’s war stories start off a little uneven, director Guy Sanville gives the moment enough time and technical shifts to allow the audience to keep up as the story moves ahead.

Sanville fills “Escanaba” with plenty of breath and comic beats. The best examples of this are in the beginning, as Alphonse struggles to install the door, and later, when he offers a taste of the “secret ingredient” of his delicious pasties to the inquisitive James.

Dana White’s lighting design and Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design create appropriate tones and moods and also signal the drastic change in time and location. But it is the exquisite set designed by Dennis G. Crawley, with its fresh cut-log walls and a full tree, that complete the illusion that the audience has been transported Up North.

Daniels definitely takes risks with his metaphysical musings, but they are the necessary glue in the walls of the Soady 1 RWT lodge Saturday and what Night make “Escanaba” Oct 7 & 14 a delightful glorification of Michigan storytelling.


ly does double By Jeff Daniels duty, playing Through Dec. 19
a second role 8 p.m. Wednesday – Friday as Alphonse’s 3 p.m. & 8
p.m. Saturday father, but 2 p.m. Sunday he performs Purple Rose Theatre
Co., 137 Park St., Chelsea b e a u t i f u l l y $25-$38 in both roles,
(734) 433-7673 demonstrat- www.purplerosetheatre.org