BRISTOL — Elkhart Civic Theatre, like most community groups, is very careful when selecting a season of plays. The rule of thumb is to wait about 10 years before repeating any production. When this rule is suspended, you can be sure there is a good reason. That reason was obvious Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House when ECT unveiled its 2009 production of Jeff Daniels’ wild and wooly comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” Most recently presented in 2006, it was so popular it begged for quick return. Friday marked the fourth time I have seen this comedy. Twice at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., which also brought it back in record time (’04 and ’06) and at ECT in ’06. Most would think that, after a quartet of viewings — especially knowing where and what the jokes are — the urge to laugh would fade out.
Wrong! I laughed just as long and hard at the current “Escanaba” as I did back in ’04. Part of this is the fact that director Stephanie Salisbury had the good sense to reassemble 4/6 of the original cast. Part of it is the fact that author Daniels has created characters that it is impossible to forget, tough hairy men who are rough on the outside and goofily human on the inside. Returning cast members are Steve Salisbury (yes, that’s her husband but nepotism had nothing to do with it…he’s just plain perfect for the part) as Albert Soady, grizzled patriarch of the Yupper clan (for Yupper, read people in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula ABOVE the bridge); Timothy Yoder and Brian Scott Kozlowski as his sons Reuben and Remnar Soady, respectively, described kindly by their father as “not the sharpest tools in the shed”; and Paul Hanft as alien abductee and fellow Yuper Jimmer Negamanee from Menaminee. All have recreated their roles and are as good if not better than the first time around. The setting, again designed and dressed by ECT artistic director John Shoup, is the perfect deer hunting cabin, complete with large trophies of past shoots and properly rustic furnishings. The time is the evening before the opening day of hunting season. “It’s like Christmas with guns,” Remnar declares in happy anticipation, The focus is on Reuben, at 35 the oldest Soady never to have shot a buck. To keep this from being entered in the Soady “bible,” a record of past family hunts and trophies, he intends to break the annual rituals in order to bring himself a bit of luck. Needless to say, the family objects — loudly and strenuously — especially Remnar who is definitely “a creature of habit.” As dad and the boys settle in, Jimmer bursts in and expands the legends surrounding his alien abduction by hysterically reporting the “demise” of his Chevy and the appearance of “hoovering lights.” The evening wears on and other strange occurrences reinforce the hunters’ growing suspicions that something weird is happening. The appearance of Ranger Tom T. Treado (Ricky Fields) of the hated DNR ,who shares his own uncommon experience, does nothing to reassure them. In addition to excellent comic timing by all (and there are enough huge laughs from the audience to drown dialogue if not timed correctly), the cast delivers the proper Yupper accents, Hanft deserves the “all-you-can-drink” medal and Yoder, the “I Wouldn’t Want to Be in His Place” award, with Melissa Domiano as Reuben’s Ojibwa wife, earning a “no small parts” citation. Joining these rough, tough men as they prepare to hunt “bucks as big as Buicks,” is a real comedic blast that has nothing to do with strange lights or stranger sounds, just some good actors creating good solid characters from a good script. The result is more fun than hunting, especially for us “lowlanders.” NOTE: When audience members in the first two rows are advised to wear the ponchos they receive, they would do well to follow that advice. The management will pay no cleaning bills.
“ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Sept. 25-26 and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Opera House. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit the ECT website.