After a summer without a season, The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., opened its 2011 season Tuesday with a production of Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in Love,” a prequel to his “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” and reportedly the first in an “Escanaba” trilogy.
“Escanaba in Love” has the same setting — the Soady family deer camp in Michigan’s upper peninsula on the opening day of deer season — and some of the same characters, although the youngster of “Love” is the patriarch of “Moonlight.” It’s kind of like I’m my own grandpa.
“Escanaba in Da Moonlight” has been produced three times at The Barn since 2003 and, having seen it each time, I have to say that it is one of those comedies that is just as funny with each subsequent production as it is at the first viewing.
“Escanaba in Love” is much lower on the comic scale and heads into more serious aspects of Soady life and love with the laughs generated primarily by below-the-belt humor which the opening night audience found hilarious. The first “Escanaba” cast was 99 percent male, which made the earthy situations more palatable. Not so much here where they are generated by a new wife who trims her toenails with her teeth, combs her eyebrows with a toothbrush, drinks more than the men and can’t resist any opportunity to jump on her new hubby.
The arrival of Big (so-called because she wants to love the whole world) Betty Balou (Erin Oechsel), new bride of 18-year-old Albert Soady Jr. (Patrick Hunter), throws a monkey wrench into the opening day plans of her new father-in-law Albert Soady Sr. (Eric Parker), his father Alphonse Soady (Charlie King), and their friend “Salty” Jim Negamanee (Roy Brown). The older men, ready for Jr. to bag his first buck, are astounded that he has not brought his gun, an oversight he explains by saying that he is going into the army the next day. He then toasts his new wife, waiting outside in the truck. It was love at first sight, he declares, then reveals he won her in a kissing contest at the Porcelain Bar and doesn’t want to go off to war without ever being with a woman.
Enter Big Betty, garbed in animal pelts, boots and many pair of socks, scratching and swearing, just like one of the boys. To say that Sr. is shocked is putting it mildly. He then attempts to convince his son that this love will never last, recounting the ways in which he wooed his late wife whose fishing prowess was shadowed only by her refusal to ever take the fish off the hook.
Throughout this, the boys are drinking the traditional Sweet Sap Whiskey (which Betty proceeds to down in great quantities), feeding the “gas” jar with pennies and trying to convince Jr. that his hasty marriage is a big mistake. They fail, even when her decidedly shady past is revealed. Her final big catch, however, saves her marriage and wins her father-in-law’s approval.
The ensemble cast works well under the direction of Hans Friedrichs and establishes solidly individual characters, but the humor sometimes tends to be mean-spirited and frequently to be coarse. It is not intended for children.
“ESCANABA IN LOVE” plays at 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday and Tuesday through June 25 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and June 26 at The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Augusta and Galesburg, Mich. For information and reservations: (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com.