While the Purple Rose Theatre Company's space, the Garage Theatre in Chelsea, MI, goes dormant for a year of renovations, founder Jeff Daniels is mounting a commercial Detroit staging of his 1995 and 1997 PRTC hit, Escanaba in da Moonlight.
Previews for the comedy, set in a hunting cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, begin Sept. 15 at the historic Gem Theatre in Detroit, toward a Sept. 22 opening. The ambitious run is slated through Feb. 13, 2000.
In its previous stagings in Chelsea, 60 miles west of Detroit, the show sent audiences in fits of laughter with its mix of male bonding, Michigan rituals and flatulence. Some "Yoopers" (Upper Peninsula residents) who got wind of the script during its first two stagings expressed displeasure about being represented as flatulent halfwits, but the comedy is now a Michigan hit and tradition, and has enjoyed regional stagings (at Sacramento's B Street Theatre, for example). Escanaba is a city in the Michigan UP.
The new staging, with the 1997 cast directed by PRTC artistic director Guy Sanville, will nestle into the Gem, a tiny jewelbox in downtown Detroit, with cabaret seating on the main floor and traditional seating in the balcony. Daniels' The Vast Difference had a commercial run there several years ago.
In a story that made national headlines, the Gem and the adjoining Century Theatre, were moved several blocks to make way for two new stadiums being built in the downtown Detroit theatre district. Film actor and playwright Jeff Daniels is producing Escanaba in da Moonlight under the umbrella of Big Pickle Productions ("presenting the Purple Rose Theatre Company production of..."), in association with the Forbes family, operators of the Gem and Century.
The cast includes Joseph Albright and Phil Powers as Remnar and Reuben Soady, Jim Porterfield as their father, Albert, Sandra Birch as Reuben's Native American wife, Wold Moon Dance, Randall Godwin as a department of natural resources officer, and Wayne David Parker as Jimmer Negamanee as a legendary Yooper who was abducted by aliens.
A film version of the script is in development.
The bloom will be off the Purple Rose's home for a year, with a reopening expected in summer or fall 2000. The price tag of the renovations could top $1.7 million.
World premieres, area premieres and raucous comedies (one per season by Daniels) have been the staple there since Daniels founded the troupe in 1991.
The premieres of two Purple Rose commissions by playwrights Stephen Dietz and Lanford Wilson are expected in the new space in the next two years, but until 2000, Purple Rose won't have a presence in the tiny semi rural community where Jiffy baking mix is a major industry. Daniels grew up there and lives there with his wife and kids, when not making movies.
Wilson's Book of Days, which won the American Theatre Critics Association 1999 New Play Award, premiered in 1998 at Purple Rose and is in the midst of a co-production between Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Hartford Stage of Hartford, CT. A New York transfer is possible.
Wilson's next commission for Purple Rose is called The Rain Dance.
Purple Rose managing director Alan Ribant told Playbill On-Line May 27 no staff is being cut or laid off during the down time.
The nonprofit Purple Rose, which is not bound by a subscription audience, will see the following improvements to its 119-seat space:
• New roof and roof insulation to prevent the sound of rain.
• New back wall behind center section of three-quarter-configured audience, and the addition of a stage manager's booth there.
• Adding about 40 new seats, taking capacity to 160-165.
• Expanding lobby and office areas.
• Improving air conditioning units.
Daniels has used the PRTC as a canvas for regional acting, directing and playwriting talent. Daniels emerged as a playwright there, seeing the stagings of Apartment 3A, The Tropical Pickle, Shoe Man, Boom Town and Thy Kingdom's Coming, which had an Off-Broadway staging in May and June 1999, presented by the Barrow Group. Daniels has directed at PRTC but has not yet acted there.
The 80-year-old space, has served as a bus and truck repair shop, a pizza joint, a fruit and vegetable market, a car storage garage and a plumbing parts store.
For Gem Theatre ticket information, call (313) 963-9800.
-- By Kenneth Jones