My Deer Heart: Jeff Daniels' "Escanaba in Love" tracks love and laughter at an Upper Peninsula hunting camp


Jamie Lee as Albert Soady Jr. and Mark Bernstein as Albert Soady Sr. in PTD Productions' Escanaba in Love.

Jamie Lee as Albert Soady Jr. and Mark Bernstein as Albert Soady Sr. in PTD Productions' Escanaba in Love. Photo courtesy of PTD Productions.

Michiganders know the opening day of deer season is essentially a holiday for many folks, and that's definitely the case in Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Love, which PTD Productions is staging at the Riverside Art Center in Ypsilanti.

In this prequel to Daniels' hit show Escanaba in Da Moonlight, the audience is transported to the small Western Upper Peninsula town where the infamous Soady Deer Camp resides. It's 1944 and multiple generations of Soady men have been coming to this cabin in the woods to hunt. 

Family patriarch Alphonse Soady (Larry Rusinsky) is convinced he shot the biggest buck to ever walk the woods even as Albert Soady Sr. (Mark Bernstein) is certain Alphonse is losing his mind.

In comes "Salty" Jim Negamanee (Gary Lehman), who walks with a gimp due to a supposed boat accident and an alcohol problem. They all talk about the excitement of opening day and who will get the big buck this year.

Next, we meet Albert Soady Jr. (Jamie Lee), whom everyone calls Junior. He announces he passed his physical to join the Army and everyone celebrates the next great Soady man to go to war. Junior also drops a huge bomb by announcing that he is also newly married to a woman he met at the bar mere hours ago. Even worse, he brought her to deer camp so she could meet everyone and they could have a quick honeymoon since he was departing the next day for general training in Battle Creek. 

Exploding through the front door is Big Betty Balou (Alandra Meade), who is loud, brash, and anything but ladylike. The men are instantly appalled, claiming there's no way Junior knows what love is and there’s no way this woman is fit to be his wife. Junior insists he loves her, but will the other men come to find in Big Betty what he sees?

Moonshine is poured, heart-to-hearts are had, and challenges are placed to see if Betty is worthy of the Soady family. Do she and Junior stay married? You gotta go to dah U.P. to find out, eh!

The set design by Laura Bird and Karrie Waarala (who also directed the show) is brilliant, creating a realistic deer camp and cabin. The attention to detail in the wall mountings, knit blankets, and period cookware creates a cozy atmosphere that tells the audience where they are the moment they walk into the theatre. You could live in their set.

The cast comes together nicely as a company, each with a unique Yooper accent. The script is hilarious, with plenty of Yooper stereotypes and slang, while also lending itself to beautiful moments of vulnerability and connection.

Some actors pushed their performances into the caricature space, which does injustice to those characters, but Mark Bernstein as the worried and doting father does a beautiful job of showing his funny side while giving a truthful and earnest performance. When he talks about his late wife, you believe he loved her to no end. He excels in this role and I would love to see what he does next. 

Marley Boone is a theater professional who has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she wrote theater reviews for DC Metro Arts.

PTD Productions' “Escanaba in Love“ runs November 9-18 at the Riverside Arts Center, 76 North Huron Street, Ypsilanti. More information, tickets, and hours can be found here.