‘Hunting Shack Christmas’ at Williamston funny, tender and reminiscent of Escanaba plays
WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–What might Escanaba in Da Moonlight look like if it were written in 2014 and set in Minnesota? Or maybe Guys on Ice but with women and no music?
Jessica Lind Peterson continues in that grand tradition with A Hunting Shack Christmas, which is getting its Michigan premiere at Williamston Theatre. It has more women than its predecessors and even the secluded shack now has wi-fi and Internet access.
There are references to Pinterest, Facebook and online dating. But there are also still fart jokes, slapstick, guns, alcohol consumption, and rituals that only make sense to those who have carried them out through the years.
Peterson does something else, though, that makes this comedy a special one. Most relationships that play out on stage happen at the beginning—two people courting and falling in love—or at the end—two people falling apart and leaving each other. Rarely do we see the middle of a relationship, the part where the couple is facing hardship and loss and figuring it out the way that couples do. Rarely do we see couples who are in love after many years have passed. In A Hunting Shack Christmas, we get to see two such couples.
It’s the kind of show that Director Tony Caselli does well—comedies that are filled with sweetness and encourage you to reach out to those you love after you’ve seen the show.
The play frequently breaks the fourth wall, starting at the very beginning when Patrick Loos comes out and introduces himself as Charlie, the narrator. He doesn’t narrate for very long, though. He quickly steps into the action of the play and it is only occasionally as the action moves back and forth between places and time that he again becomes a narrator rather than an actor.
Loos’ Charlie is a man with a problem and for the sake of dramatic tension, he’s slow to reveal the exact nature of the trouble he is in or why he has to leave his suburban home days before his 10th anniversary and the renewal of his vows on Christmas Eve to visit a hunting shack in the northern Minnesota woods. Loos is the straight man to the exaggerated characters around him and he does it well, providing an audience’s perspective on those he interacts with.
Sharon Combs plays Jennifer, his bubbly, optimistic wife who is devoted and loving, always understanding even when she grows suspicious about her husband’s behavior. Combs does a beautiful job of showing what a happy marriage looks like and a woman who is long past the first flush of love and into the dedicated long-term part of it.
Both Loos and Combs make a great contrast for the other three members of the cast, who all play stock Minnesotan characters.
I’ve seen John Lepard many times on and off the Williamston stage, but it wasn’t until the end of the first act that I recognized him as the actor playing Big Paul, even knowing beforehand he was part of the cast. He immerses himself so fully into the character that you see the redneck old man who moves stiffly and is quick to cuss.
Sandra Birch is hilarious as Big Paul’s long-time lover, June. She’s got an amusing Minnesotan accent and is Lepard’s equal in physical comedy. June may be written as a redneck, but Birch makes sure she is infused with wisdom and kindness.
Aral Gribble has long been a favorite on the Williamston stage and he shows why as Ham, the socially inept cousin who is eager to launch his venison jerky business. Gribble mixes equal amounts of wackiness and adorableness to make Ham likeable.
Together, the ensemble creates a portrayal of an unusual family that has unexpectedly strong bonds. A Hunting Shack Christmas never forgets that it is a comedy, but it is a comedy with a heart and plenty of tenderness.
The two-story set by Bartley H. Bauer is heavily decked out with hunting décor. There are hornets nests and deer racks, tools, and a vintage refrigerator. It immediately takes the audience “up north” and in the woods, with all the rustic appearance that goes along with it. Michelle Raymond helps to fill the set with pickled food, wrapped gifts and home-made venison.
Costumer Meredith Wagner never lets us forget that it is Christmas from just accents of red and green to all-out pageant wear.
There is a lot to love about “A Hunting Shack Christmas.” It is funny, sweet, tender, and filled with the best of holiday spirit. For those looking for an uplifting break from the daily news or the stress of the season, a trip to Williamston should be written onto the calendar.