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Business as usual at the Soady Deer Camp
Photos by Bradford Studios
Review by Lisa Purchase

When love comes to the Soady Deer Camp and the bunk beds become a bridal suite, a silly farce turns into a serious ode to love in Midland's Escanaba in Love.

From the first entrance (patriarch Alphonse Soady, played by Jim Ely, comes in through the outhouse) this prequel started out a little slow. The expected fart jokes and guns and banter about the infamous Soady Ridge Buck weren't really going anywhere, despite some amusing moments here and there. And I have to be honest here; I missed The Jimmer. The frenetic Jimmer Negamanee was a high point of both productions of Escanaba in Da Moonlight when I saw it in Bay City in 2004 and a couple years later at Pit & Balcony in Saginaw (and was played by the same actor both times), and this production's character of "Salty" Negamanee (presumably The Jimmer's father? played by Shawn Finney) was a little weak in comparison. This was in part, no doubt, because a good deal of The Jimmer's excessive volume, bluster, and personality was written for the outsider character in this deer camp, Big Betty Balou (played by Cathie Stewart).

And that's where the tide began to turn. The real story snuck up on me as the subject of love walked in and the banter turned to tenderness. Not tenderness with Big Betty at first—that came much later. First it was a tense time between father and son, each fighting for the other to accept his version of what romantic love should be. The wonderfully understated acting of John McPeak as Albert Soady, Sr. really brought the level of the show up, as a man trying passionately to make his son (played by Bill McCartney) understand that "your mother and I had something you don't get by looking for it." And Big Betty came blowing in like a ridiculous lion but went out like a lamb … or at least a sweeter quieter lion. Depth of character and subtle shades of loving relationships grew out of some well-played moments with her unlikely beau Albert Soady, Jr., and with his stubborn father. And then she blurred the line between past and present, old love and new, to take up her place in this family of diamonds in the rough.

In reference to the previously viewed productions of Escanaba in Da Moonlight, I was gratified to see the old Soady Deer Camp looked about the same, as if I were in fact revisiting the same old cabin unchanged year after year. Designed by Technical Director Jim Ely, the set was simple, with no moving pieces or wagons to shift around, but it was lush with detail: the cast iron stove, the rustic furniture, the plank paneling, the stuffed fish with a gun-shot wound through it … the effect was both beautiful and convincing (although I doubt there is any deer camp in the U.P. that is actually half as nice as this one).

The characters and the acting seemed to grow throughout the show, and it turned out to be a really good story played by a really good ensemble. Based on this production, I am very much looking forward to the rest of the season at Midland Center for the Arts.

For more on the MCA season, check the Events Calendar.

© Lisa Purchase, 2010