Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Like a little kid who saw The Phantom Menace before Star Wars, the Purple Rose Theatre Company's final installment in the Escanaba trilogy was the first I had seen. Unlike that little kid, I wasn't disappointed, and, from the murmurs and chuckles of the audience, nor were the die-hard Escanaba fans.

The story of Jeff Daniels's Escanaba predates both Escanaba in Da Moonlight and Escanaba in Love, chronicling the very moment at which the Soady family history and traditions began: patriarch Alphonse Soady (Tom Whalen) completes the cabin at the deer camp. It's pretty unrealistic that every single tradition had its roots in just over an hour's time (including when Soady met Negamanee), but what legend was ever believable? The events are best taken in with the same skepticism one would use to interpret annals of ancient history — probably not how it really happened, but as close as we'll ever get.

This perspective is greatly enhanced by a current of nostalgia apparent even to a newbie; in fact, even in this prequel, Daniels cannot resist including an extended flashback. Although this was hardly my favorite part, it nicely suggested that no matter how far back we anchor ourselves in our personal histories, those people were doing the same to histories of their own. It's a thematic victory even in its strange but well-acted execution.

I wonder whether this production would succeed without Escanaba veterans Whalen and Wayne David Parker as Jim Negamanee (from Menominee). Longtime fans must have enjoyed tracing the characteristics of the ancestors to those of their descendants, examining the choices made by the same actors for century-distant characters. It's a unique challenge for an actor, and one that I wish I could address. Nevertheless, Parker earns rolling laughs as a larger-than-life bloviator who can't help but occasionally steal the scene, and Whalen balances him out well with a stoic disposition that gives way to gravity as well as humor. 

The artificially confined set of the cabin did not hold back the production from an energetic and creative staging, including some great sight gags and gross-out humor, helmed by director Guy Sanville. The lighting, sound, and other effects offered up a number of surprises as well as a more nuanced homage to the Upper Peninsula in the form of a lovely protracted sunset.

In television and film series from Star Wars to Moonlighting, giving the audience what they ask for often proves to be a letdown. Here, Escanaba proves its mettle and, however shakily, stands on its own. The production could not have been more fond and reassuring had it been presented in sepia tones, but there's no harm in indulging your audience with that level of comfort every once in a while.


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