Some admire Jeff Daniels for his rich and protean work as an actor. Others praise the vision and hard work he's lavished on the Purple Rose Theater, creating an arts network of national stature almost literally in the middle of a cornfield. But there are those to whom his crowning achievement will always be Escanaba in da Moonlight, a love letter to da Yoop, doofus rustics, potty humor, and the inner deer hunter that lives in all of us.
If it doesn't live in you, it doesn't matter so much in the prequel, Escanaba in Love, now at the Purple Rose. The conflict of this installment of the Soady family saga is not man versus deer, but Soadys versus womankind. Albert has just won Big Betty Baloo in a barroom kissing contest, wed her on the spot, and brought her to deer camp for their honeymoon. As the first woman ever to set foot in the Soady deer camp at all — let alone during deer season — her britches must be large indeed to square off with an entire clan of Soadys who have had generations to perfect their family legend.
She's been in training all her life for such a moment, and beat them at their own game she does. Of course, we know that before the play even begins, because it's a prequel, so there's not much required of the audience except to laugh at the jokes. The jokes, physical and verbal, rain down like mayflies in June thanks to the expertly tuned quartet of actors (Will David Young, Paul Hopper, Wayne David Parker, and Jake Christensen) portraying male bonding in overdrive.
A tangle of careless details muddies this tall tale. The distinctive cadence of UP speech often slides into an all-purpose Stage Irish. Why does the fishhook need to come out? And no true Yooper would have such high regard for a rainbow trout. North Country Opera it's not, but it's a worthy companion piece to Moonlight.
Escanaba in Love continues its run at the Purple Rose Wednesday through Sunday, except for November 23, through Saturday, December 23.
[Review published November 2006]