Playwright Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in da Moonlight” has forged a legacy for itself since its world-premiere production at Purple Rose Theatre Company a decade and a half ago.
Now, under the direction of Laura Moore, the play that sparked a trilogy makes its debut in Pagosa. It’s clear after viewing why the Thingamajig Theatre couldn’t resist a shot at the show: with a tale this silly, folksy, eerie, warm, and improbable all rolled into one comedy full of Michigan flavor, it’s hard to imagine passing on this one.
Andy Donlon plays the curmudgeonly narrator and family patriarch, Albert Soady; although he professes little patience for the so-called fudgesuckers of Michigan’s lower peninsula, it’s hard not to be won over by his staunch Yooper pride. In point of fact, Albert has little patience for anything but hunting, including the near-constant ribbing between his two sons, Reuben (Tim Moore) and Remnar (Skip Wee).
When we meet them on the fateful night before 1989 deer season opens, Remnar is primarily occupied with taunting Reuben for never having bagged a buck of his own. In fact, the reluctantly nicknamed Buckless Yooper is about to become the oldest member of his lineage to hold that dishonor — this year is do or die for him.
Moore ably embodies the hopelessness, ambition and failure of never measuring up, which turns his every spoken word into a vital entreaty for his family to take him seriously.
Wee’s Remnar, a creature of habit and superstitions, provides an efficient foil when Reuben asks to leave aside tradition just this once.
Much of the first act is concerned with bizarre, half-understood Native American rituals Reuben learned from his wife, Wolf Moon Dance (a guest artist that changes nightly), blending laughed-off mumbo jumbo and pure lowest-common-denominator nastiness, the disgustingly funny stuff of spit takes.
Yet something else is afoot on this fateful night, a supernatural presence that manifests when the childlike Ranger Tom (Mark Brown) enters. The reviled Department of Natural Resources stooge is fresh from a vision of God and departs from reality entirely. By then, Albert has already exposited about UFO and spirit activity in the U.P., with exhibit A being the hunting party’s fourth member and surrogate drunk uncle. And, ultimately, even with all the perfectly strong elements in the show, here lies reason enough to attend: Dave Armbrecht as Jimmer Negamanee. Armbrecht dominates a perpetual-motion speech impediment and elevates space-age eccentricity — and, yes, protracted flatulence so extravagant it requires its own strobe effect — into an art form.
Even so, no single character dominates; instead, the production finds several stories and styles crowding to the fore, and they all manage to coexist in a flurry of shifting tones that keep viewers on edge. “Escanaba in da Moonlight” is the perfect encore offering if you also enjoyed Thingamajig’s production of “Guys on Ice.” Who knew Yooper comedy could be so satisfying?
Thingamajig Theatre Company presents “Escanaba in da Moonlight” by Jeff Daniels, showing at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, March 16-April 1. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.pagosacenter.org or calling 731-SHOW.
“Escanaba in da Moonlight” is produced by the Thingamajig Theatre Company with special sponsorship by The Pagosa Springs SUN, Wild Spirit Designs and its 2011-2012 Season Sponsor, Citizen’s Bank of Pagosa Springs.