Buck stops here

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Having spent a few too many hours with the residents of Tuna, Texas, one approaches the environs of Escanaba, Michigan, with more than a little trepidation. Fortunately, Contemporary American Theatre Company's production of Escanaba in Love by Jeff Daniels possesses hints of humanity that none of the Tuna travesties can imagine.

The first hint is Alphonse Soady's tender opening monologue about having shot the legendary Soady Ridge Buck, whose head occupies an honored place on the Soady Deer Camp wall. Jon Farris tells the story with a misty-eyed reverence that lets us know about both his position in this fictional world and his loosening grip on reality.

Then he punctuates it all with the nearly poetic admission, "My emotions are incontinent." Of course, a few minutes later, he brings everything down to earth with an epic passage of gas. In Escanaba, it comes with the territory.

That balance of the lofty and the coarse is part of whatever charm Escanaba in Love possesses. For all of the play's coarseness, it's the loftiness of love that wins out.

Albert Soady Jr. (Jake Jones) arrives at the men-only camp, having just signed up to fight in World War II and with the new wife he just won in a barroom kissing contest. Big Betty Balou (Ashlee Mundy) is subjected to Albert Sr.'s version of the Labors of Hercules to prove herself worthy of his son. The magical resolution to the conflict between Big Betty and Albert Sr. (Mark Mann) is an unexpectedly affecting demonstration of the power of love and memory.

Mundy, who stood out as Cassandra in OSU's 2007 production of Charles Mee's The Trojan Women 2.0, impresses again with a portrayal that mixes innocence, experience and adaptability. Mann, gruff and ornery, manages his own transformation with accustomed skill.

Jones is mostly innocence, but even he has a secret up his, uh, sock. Brian David Evans gives the Soady family foil "Salty" Jim Negamanee a distinctive personality.

Escanaba in Love's modest pleasures, nicely honed by director Jonathan Putnam, make a return appearance of Michigan's trout more palatable than Texas' Tuna.

"Escanaba in Love"

Through Nov. 9

Riffe Center Studio One Theatre, Downtown