A folksy look at Michigan’s upper peninsula takes the stage at Hendersonville Community Theatre in the form Escanaba In Da Moonlight by actor Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom,” Speed, Dumb And Dumber) . Daniels wrote it for his Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan, but it feels right at home in WNC. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 24.
Director Zach Eden and HCT have a real winner on their hands with this oddball comedy about a hunting trip gone awry. The single room setting of a humble hunting cabin and generations of family tradition anchor the show, despite the over-the-top humor.
The Soady family has made this annual trip for decades, with each of the Soady men finding pleasure and success (not to mention bragging rights) in killing prize-winning bucks. The only exception is Reuben (played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Cody Pero), who is almost 35 years old, and dangerously close to getting his name in the family record book as the oldest Soady to have never bagged a buck. People are starting to think he’s cursed.
Jay Mitchell’s Remnar is a loud, goofy lug of a guy who towers over Reuben despite being his “little” brother. Mitchell is fun to watch as he deftly plays up the oafishness of the character. Rounding out the family is Albert, the father, who serves as narrator, telling the story from years hence. Doug Sparks has excellent comedic chops as Albert, playing to the audience and establishing the unique local dialect and colloquialisms of the upper peninsula (or U.P.) and the “Yoopers” who live there.
Jack McConnell is hilariously twitchy as family friend, and local legend Jimmy “The Jimmer” Negamanee from Menominee. Aside from the tongue twister handle, Jimmer is known widely for having been abducted by aliens years earlier. After a weekend in space, he returned with an altered speech pattern and the ability to drink anything.
Reuben introduces new rituals to help break his bad luck streak, thanks to his native American wife’s suggestions. Aside from the humor of the list of ingredients and tales of how they were collected, there’s plenty of physical comedy and drunken banter throughout the show. Before all is said and done, two more characters arrive and add to the chaos: A park ranger (played by Brent Schlueter) who believes he’s seen God in a bright light and is spiritually illuminated by it, and Rueben’s wife, Wolf Moon Dance (played by Jan Robbins).
There’s a lot to like about the show, but this reviewer has one minor quibble: the presence of hunting rifles is logical for such a show, but the attention to detail could be a bit sharper when it comes to handling the rifles by the actors. They play men who are avid hunters, but overall don’t handle their rifles convincingly, looking like they probably haven’t heard of hunter safety much less actually gone hunting.
That said, a show like Escanaba is the kind of production HCT is best suited to produce: smaller cast, simple set and something that easily connects with the audience. In spite of the northern setting, the themes of family tradition, hunting and the fragile yet dominating sense of manly pride all ring familiar to anyone who lived in WNC in the 1970s and ’80s and likely knew characters like these. There’s a bygone era quality to the show that’s endearing.
WHAT: Escanaba In Da Moonlight
WHERE: Hendersonville Community Theatre, 229 S. Washington St., Hendersonville, hendersonvilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 24. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $15-$25