Escanaba in Love, which opened last week at Circle Theatre in Forest Park, was written by Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels, known for his well-meaning but dim-witted roles in such movies as Pleasantville and Dumb and Dumber. The play is receiving its Chicago premiere, having been birthed at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., which Daniels founded in order to promote Midwestern material in productions featuring Midwestern artists. If you enjoyed Dumb and Dumber, you’ll probably appreciate Escanaba in Love.
A prequel to his comedy Escanaba in da Moonlight, which enjoyed a successful run at Circle Theatre last season, Escanaba in Love is set 40 years earlier during World War II and again takes us to a hunting cabin way up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the air is apparently good for testosterone but bad for the brain cells.
Tucked into a snug cabin in the woods, nicely evoked in rough lumber and deer antlers by set designer Bob Knuth, Albert Soady Sr. and his dad await the arrival of Albert Jr., who plans to join them for a hunting weekend after he’s finished enlisting in the Army. The single proudest moment in Grandpa’s life to date has been bagging the buck whose head now graces the cabin’s wall. His son, Albert Sr., when he’s not busy complying with Grandpa’s demands that he kiss his stuffed deer or trying to ensure that the old man doesn’t shoot anyone by mistake, pines for his dead wife and is tortured by remorse for having once tried to force her to remove the hook from a fish’s mouth when she pleaded not to.
When young Albert arrives, he is full of surprises, not the least of which is that he’s got a bride waiting in the car. He’s won Big Betty Balou in a kissing contest in a bar, and she’s a prize, all right-resembling nothing so much as a hyperactive she-bear in heat.
Making fun of stereotypes is a time-honored tradition in popular culture, but whether the population of choice is neurotic New York Jews or air-head California silicon-bots, it’s all in the execution. Targeting under-educated outdoorsmen from the northern hinterlands is not new dramaturgical terrain, having been traversed previously and more successfully by American Folklore Theatre, which sets up residence every summer in Wisconsin’s Door County. In such hits as Lumberjacks in Love and Guys on Ice, AFT pays homage to the well-meaning north country dolt in his natural environs-heavy on the trees and light on the females.
But where American Folklore Theatre exploits the clueless woodsman with charm and imagination, Daniels gives us all of the farts and none of the finer points. Under the gross-out humor of Escanaba in Love beats a charitable heart, but if you’re put off by potty jokes, you may not care enough to find it.
Circle’s competent actors soldier on bravely through Daniels’ inane dialogue and groaner jokes. Director Chris Arnold doesn’t do his actors any favors by pushing them firmly across the line from believable to buffoon, setting a predictable pace that methodically hammers each and every pubescent joke-from the many, many references to flatulence to Grandpa fondling himself under the bedcovers to Albert Jr. and Big Betty Balou, French-kissing on top of a table for much longer than anyone wants to see.
The exception in the cartoon cast is Tucker Curtis, who, as the father and middle generation of the Soady men, gets the fewest laugh lines and therefore has to content himself with creating a consistent character. With his gorgeously resonant bass voice and commanding stature, Curtis will no doubt be showing up on a lot more stages around town in the coming seasons.
Judging from his other roles-including a Jeff-nominated turn two years ago in Circle’s production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband-actor Bradford R. Lund, who plays the junior member of the Soady clan, fares better in roles not involving rifles. Looking like he just came from a job delivering singing telegrams, Lund is clearly a talented actor who has wandered into a corner of the theatrical landscape from which one can only hope he manages to escape before he gets beaten up.
Kristin Gehring is a director, acting teacher and critic who has served on the theater faculties at the University of Virginia and North Park University.