Returning to ‘Escanaba’

Published 11:34 am Friday, May 23, 2014

The Beckwith Theatre will be staging several performances of  “Escanaba,” starring Tony Meloche, David Taylor and Bryan Kiner. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

The Beckwith Theatre will be staging several performances of “Escanaba,” starring Tony Meloche, David Taylor and Bryan Kiner. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

DOWAGIAC — If you are a deer hunter in the State of Michigan, you probably already know about Jeff Daniels’ 2001 film, “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” In fact, watching the film might even be a part of your Opening Day ritual.

If you are not familiar with it, the action is set in the Upper Peninsula town of Escanaba, and it tells the story of Daniels’ character, Rueben Soady, and his quest to finally bag a deer after many years of trying. Coming from a family of diehard deer hunters, Rueben’s reputation and self-esteem depend up the success of his hunt.

While the film version of this scatological comedy helped to spread the popularity of the story, the narrative originated as a play written by Daniels, a Michigan native himself. It was first performed at Daniels’ Chelsea, Michigan theater, the Purple Rose, in 1995.

Now, thanks to the Beckwith Theatre, located at 100 New York Ave., local fans of the Soady family can get the whole backstory on the clan, while those who are unfamiliar with the story can tap into the narrative at its very beginnings.

“Daniels wrote ‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’ first, and then he wrote ‘Escanaba in Love,’” said Paul Pugh, director of the play and founder of the theater. “That play is all about how Albert met Big Betty Ballou. And then, Daniels thought maybe people would like to know how it all began, so he wrote ‘Escanaba.’ He did it all backwards. That’s the story of how the deer camp was built, and how The Jimmer became a part of the Soady family’s deer camp traditions.”

With those two prequels, Daniels takes the storyline back several generations prior to Rueben’s birth in an almost Dickensian way. Therefore, Rueben, the main character in the original play, does not figure into the two newer plays at all.

The Beckwith will be staging “Escanaba” at their Dowagiac playhouse on the next two weekends, with opening night being May 23.

However, this will not be the first time that the Beckwith has entertained the story of the Soady family and their deer-hunting friend, James Negamanee, who is also known as “The Jimmer.” That’s why the theater company has chosen to advertise the performance as “Escanaba 1922.”

“We originally did ‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’ because we’d heard a couple of other theaters around here weren’t going to do it. They thought it was too bawdy. Maybe that’s not the right word, but they weren’t going to do it, so we decided to,” Pugh recalled. “After we did it, they decided to go ahead and do it, too, so maybe we were ahead of the trend, I guess. That was about 8 years ago.”

For those who are interested in the love story between Albert and Big Betty Ballou, the Beckwith also has plans to stage the second play in the Escanaba trilogy this season as well.

“We’ll be doing ‘Escanaba in Love’ as the last play this season. It opens October 31,” Pugh said. “We hope the last one will feed off of the first one.”

For the first “Escanaba” play this season, Tony Meloche will reprise his role as “The Jimmer,” while U.P. native David Taylor will play Alphonse, scion of the Soady clan. Finally, Bryan Kiner will play Black Jack, an escaped slave.

“It’s a hard play to do because there are a lot of tricks in it—like a rocking chair that rocks by itself and a big creature that runs by the window. Also, a deer crashes into the deer camp,” Pugh noted. “Also, like the movie, there is something of the supernatural in the play—a flash-back in time to the Civil War.”

Pugh is hoping that audiences will like this play as much as they have enjoyed earlier plays about the Soady clan.

“The play would appeal to everyone—especially deer hunters, and hunters in general. A lot of people wear their hunting jackets to the performances. It’s become something of a cult classic here,” Pugh said. “The wives who have to put up with men who go hunting would like it, too.”

Admission is $10 and tickets can be reserved by calling the Beckwith Theatre at (269) 782-7653 or by e-mailing Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday performances begin at 2:00 p.m. More information can be found on their website at

“We’ve sold out ‘Escanaba in da Moonlight’ both times we’ve done it in the past, so we expect folks will be interested in these plays, too,” Pugh said.