MARINETTE, Wis. (WFRV) – Deer hunting comes with lore. Ohhh so much turns around baggin’ a big ’un – rituals, booze, food, guns, smells, stories, lies and beasties roaming the big ol’ wild.
All that is in the play “Escanaba in Da Moonlight.”
It’s by a fellow who knows Broadway and movie stardom along with how Yoopers talk – Jeff Daniels.
“Escanaba in Da Moonlight” has played in a lot of places and has been made into a movie. Now the play is running just down the road from Escanaba, Michigan.
At a performance Friday night by Theatre on the Bay, folks in the audience kind of got into the action at the start – answering back questions by the character introducing the play. After that, it was clear the audience understood all the regional stuff that takes a certain finesse to pull off to make the performance feel like “here.”
It was a golden performance – homey, earthy, funny and way out.
The character telling the yarn tells a whole lot when he puts words in the audience’s mouth: “Albert Soady, the tale you’re telling is nothing but a crock.”
The story has to do with his son, Reuben Soady, who carries a mighty load in the family. At age 35, he has yet to bag a buck. This year is his last chance to avoid the immortal shame of being the oldest Soady to come home empty handed.
To make a play out of that thin premise, Jeff Daniels concocted a crock. A guy who speaks gibberish after having been kidnapped by aliens from a UFO, a DNR ranger who has seen God, incantations over the miraculous qualities of porcupine urine and the left testicle of a moose – yes, a crock.
Served up just the right way, and with Upper Michigan and Yooperland part of the local atmosphere, the show is quite the theatrical experience.
Herbert L. Williams Theatre of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Marinette Campus is the right place for “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” with two more performances in store.
The stage makes for an awfully big hunting cabin, and the pre-show sounds of crickets for an outdoorsy feel beg a question: Crickets in hunting season, November?
Much labor has gone into creating a cabin with all the huntin’ fixin’s, complete with the stage being ringed as if with woodsy undergrowth.
The costuming has certain touches – from torn jeans and a precious shirt held together with duct tape to crispness of a DNR uniform.
The icing on the cake for the aura is the cast.
Weaving the story is Joshua Stuck as the current patriarch, who holds all the lore in the family ledger of success as gospel. Joshua Stuck has a homey way of a yarn-teller. And he fits into the goofus flow as he goes from narrator to stepping into scenes.
Travis Meyer captures the desperation and earnestness of Reuben Soady, on the brink of infamy. He gets to dish out magic potions of his beloved Wolf Moon Dance (Brittany Welch in a sweet cameo) and be transported to reverie so intense there is only one (really stinky) way to break his spell.
Tristan Schuh pulls off plenty of laughs as Reuben’s brother, Remnar, who breaks into praying the rosary at the slightest hint of something spooky and generally being a brotherly sort (his way rules).
Patrick H. Mines does a twofer – directing this controlled mayhem to bundles of laughs and also playing Jimmer, the hairy UFO escapee who sort of speaks in tongues. Jimmer is a dumpy guy, a dumpy dresser and a legendary guzzler. Patrick Mines’ feat of “acting” includes downing a pint of what Jimmer believes is homemade hooch in one take. Another one is a gas – or four or five; gas, as in the passing thereof. Whoa.
Chris Mayse is – another whoa – ramrod solid as Ranger Tom, a sendup of a family-hated DNR agent. Jeff Daniels totally rips Department of Natural Resources agents, and Chris Mayse leaps into that fray. He breaks into singing a hymn, spews lines like throwing darts and moves and gestures with tight, snappy actions.
It’s wild and woolly production that’s a hoot.
Final thought: Jeff Daniels defies being boxed. “Dumb and Dumber,” a jillion other movie and TV roles, currently on Broadway in the iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as Atticus Finch… and having written the earthy and happily weird “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” – extraordinary.
Creative: Playwright – Jeff Daniels; director – Patrick Hines; set designer – Joshua LaLonde; lighting design and sound technician – Chris Weber; costumer – Annalisa Mines; stage manager – James Porras II
+ Albert Soady – Joshus Stuck
+ Reuben Soady – Travis Meyer
+ Remnar Soady – Tristan Schuh
+ Jimmer Nagamanee – Patrick H. Mines
+ Ranger Tom – Chris Mayse
+ Wolf Moon Dance – Brittany Welch
Running time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Nov. 6 and 2 p.m. Nov. 7
Note: Masks required due to COVID-19 protocol.
NEXT: “Christmas by the Bay,” Dec. 10-12.
THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, 750 W. Bay Shore St. The bay of Green Bay is in shouting distance to the east. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.
THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act and appeared many times in leading roles at Theatre on the Bay. Mostly, Herb Williams loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, she operates a bed and breakfast in Menominee, Michigan.