September 11, 2009

Guys being guys
by Greg Boyle

To celebrate the opening of their 30th season, City Theatre of Independence (CTI) gives us a madcap evening, full of manly men and magical moments, all in the name Escanaba in da Moonlight by Jeff Daniels.

Daniels is the actor you’ll mostly remember from Dumb and Dumber, although he has had much higher dramatic moments in his long career. Daniels returns to his Michigan roots to give us a play about a group of deer hunters in the Upper (pronounced “yooper”) Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, and the result is a whopper of a tall tale that keeps the audience in stitches.

(l to r) Bill Pelletier, Nino Casisi, Kevin Elmore and Jack McCord in Escanaba in da Moonlight

The story is narrated by a local, Albert Soady, played by Jack McCord. Albert is the patriarch of a family that regards deer hunting as a sacred rite, and people from any other part of the world as aliens. McCord gives him a no-nonsense practicality, which is tempered by the fact that many things are taken for granted in the U.P. that would be deemed strange anywhere else. McCord relates directly to the audience with ease and assurance, even when saying the most outrageous things.

All of the characters speak in a regional dialect, similar to what we think of as Canadian, with maybe a hint of Norwegian. It makes the silly dialogue even more fun to listen to. The action takes place on the night before the start of deer season in 1989 at the Soady family deer camp, which is near Soady Creek and Soady Ridge in Escanaba, Michigan. The family has been in the U.P. for generations. They continually refer to the words of great-granddad Alphonse Soady for guidance, even though his wisdom usually amounts to nothing more profound than “Everything comes to him who shoots straight.” You see, the Soady family, by Albert’s own admission, “are not the sharpest tools in the shed.”

Our story revolves around the plight of elder son Reuben’s quest to bag a buck. He is willing to do anything, break any hidebound tradition, to win his prize. Kevin Elmore gives Reuben a quiet shyness, but with stubbornness and determination that make you feel for his plight.

Other characters present for the hunt are younger brother Remnar, played by Bill Pelletier, and “local legend” Jimmer Negamanee, played by Nino Casisi, These two characters provide the biggest laughs of the evening with Pelletier’s gape-mouthed knuckle-headedness and Casisi’s unfathomable gibberish. Credit also goes to the costumer (uncredited), because Pelletier and Casisi, with floppy earmuff hats and baggy clothes, are funny just to look at.

It’s obvious that magic is afoot from the arrival of the first guest. Everyone has something phenomenal to report about his trip up the camp road, and spooky things continue to happen all night. However, backwoods lore accounts for most of it. But when Ranger Tom, played by Emerson Rapp III, arrives singing in full voice, (a very impressive one, I might add) the plot thickens. The arrival of Reuben’s wife Wolfmoon Dance, played simply by Norita Taylor, brings the entire set of circumstances into perspective for a happy and magical ending.

Besides the general goofiness, there are things in the play that will resonate with any man who ever yearned for a couple of days away from polite society, with the opportunity to eat and drink and do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and get away from the company of women. The notion of magic in wild places is a common throughout humanity. If this were an Irish play, it would have fairies, but this is America and our native spirits have their own identity, which is a subtle theme in the play.

Marcie Ramirez has directed with a broad hand, encouraging the guys just to be guys, and let the gas go where it may. For a female director to have such good sense is a genuine accomplishment.

The set is a rustic cabin, created by CTI’s resident master, R.J. Parrish. It is simple as it befits the needs of men alone in the woods, yet perfect in every detail. The entire thing is made of cardboard, yet it looks like split wood. An amazing detail is that the bunked held two large men without wobbling or shaking while they were getting in and out. Parrish builds ‘em solid.

Escanaba in da Moonlight is at City Theatre of Independence through Sept 20 located at the corner of Truman and Noland Roads, just a long block from the historic town square. For reservations, call the box office at 816-325-7367 or visit

Greg Boyle can be contacted at