As Jeff Daniels burrows back in U.P. time, his titles get shorter. Simply titled Escanaba, the third of the trilogy that began with Escanaba in da Moonlight and was prequeled a few years ago by Escanaba in Love, this pre-prequel takes place in 1922 and lays down the first principles of the Soady deer camp where all future Esca-pades take place. When Da Moonlight premiered at the Purple Rose in 1996, it seemed a kind of north woods Dumb and Dumber (Daniels’ 1994 movie with Jim Carrey). And perhaps it was. Daniels’ playwriting career was in its infancy then, but now that he’s got a substantial body of work behind him, it’s easier to see that Daniels’ acting challenges one year have become his playwriting fodder the next. See, for instance, how the 2005 film The Squid and the Whale got him thinking about the intellectual community, resulting in his Guest Artist, produced at the Purple Rose in 2006.
Since introducing the Soady clan, Daniels has brought many scripts to the Rose (there’s nothing like owning the theater when you’re an aspiring playwright!), but he seems most at home and most genuinely himself in the big, mythic, romantic, pre-industrial American landscape. Of all the plays he’s written, these larger-than-life Paul Bunyanesque tales are the plays that seem to flow most easily.
Escanaba is the best of the trilogy for the sheer, quiet beauty of the acting. Not to suggest that the present play is lacking the trademark Escanaba ingredients: magical realism U.P.-style and raunchiness inflicted on the audience with what feels almost like hostility on the part of the playwright. But Daniels has whittled the noisy, manic Soady kith and kin down to just its two primogenitors, Jim Negamanee (Wayne David Parker) and Alphonse Soady (Tom Whalen). Parker and Whalen are, you might say, two of the Purple Rose’s primogenitors, and watching them knit together this loose, broad comedy with finely crafted actorly intelligence is a little like seeing the history of the Purple Rose flash before your eyes. Parker seems to infect the sometimes spacy, languid Whalen with a sharper edge than he usually possesses.
A major subplot involving a historical character, played by Julian Gant, also comes into it, but this is less successful than the interplay between Parker and Whalen. While I have no inside track on why or how Daniels came to write Escanaba, it pleases me to think it was a kind of tribute written to showcase two actors who have done so much to make him a playwright.