Beckwith to premiere prequel to ‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’ on Friday

Published 8:55 am Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Actors Tony Meloche (left) and David Taylor act out an early confrontation between their characters during a dress rehearsal Monday night. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Actors Tony Meloche (left) and David Taylor act out an early confrontation between their characters during a dress rehearsal Monday night. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

For Beckwith newcomer Ryan Kiner, one of the most entertaining aspects about working on the theater’s new play, “Escanaba 1922,” has been deciphering the thick Yooper dialect used by his two costars.

“I think it is awesome just to hear them use that accent,” Kiner said. “To me, they’re not even speaking English. I think it would be difficult to remember the lines while onstage.”

Opening on Friday at the Beckwith Theatre, the play is the first chronological entry of Jeff Daniel’s “Escanaba” trilogy, telling the origin of the Upper Peninsula deer camp featured in all three plays.

David Taylor plays Alphonse Soady, the founder of the deer camp whose work on his new cabin is interrupted by the presence of the boisterous James Nagamanee from Menominee (played by Tony Meloche), who is looking for a place to stay after being chased through the woods by a bear. The two men immediately butt heads, as Soady’s attempts to toss out his uninvited guest continue to fail.

Beckwith has twice presented the first play written in the trilogy, “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” in 2002 and in 2008. Meloche, a former Dowagiac music teacher, starred in both runs of the show as Jimmer Negamanee, a descendent of his character in the prequel.

“We sold out every show the last time we did it, by word of mouth alone,” Meloche said. “All of us in the cast had a ton of fun working on it, too. It’s one of those shows where we had as much fun as the audience.”

Meloche isn’t the only member of the cast who had little trouble slipping into his role. Taylor, another Beckwith veteran, is native of the UP, so adopting the tongue of his character came naturally to
him, he said.

“For me, it’s like coming home,” Taylor said. “This play is very close to the experiences I’ve had at hunting camps up north.”

Rounding out the cast is Kiner, who plays Black Jack, an escaped slave from the Civil War era. The mystery surrounding his presence at the cabin is explained in the play’s second act.

While Kiner has starred in productions at other theaters, this is the first time he has been involved with Beckwith, he said.

Paul Pugh, who directed the 2002 production of “Moonlight,” will be at the helm of the upcoming play. He and the rest of the cast have spent the last six weeks preparing for the show.

In comparison to its predecessor, “Escanaba 1922” features a smaller cast and more scaled back production, though there’s still plenty of technical trickery at work. Pugh and stage manager Andrea Schueneman rigged up a number of props for the play, including a rocking chair that moves back and forth on its own.

“[The play] has a short script, but there’s more than enough action to fill the entire show,” Pugh said.

While the play goes heavy on the humor in the first act, the second half takes a shift toward a more somber,
contemplative tone.

“Jeff Daniels always tries to give audiences something to think about as they are leaving the theater,” Meloche said. “It’s a trademark of the ‘Escanaba’ series.”

Beckwith will be presenting the second entry in the series, “Escanaba in Love,” in October, with Meloche again playing a member of the Negamanee clan, “Salty” Jim.

“Escanaba 1922” opens at Beckwith Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, with an opening night reception. The play will run the next two weekends, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sundays. For tickets, call (269) 782-7653.