Encore Michigan

Jeff Daniels’ ‘Roadsigns’ drives dreams from hope to Chicago

Review January 29, 2020 David Kiley

CHELSEA—Anyone who has ever taken a long bus ride, for a day-long journey, knows that taking the bus is a whole different experience than driving yourself. The myriad of experiences that can lead someone to take a bus: it can be the stuff of songs, poetry, dreaming, self examination, tragedy, and everything in between. You can be alone on a bus, even though there may be twenty or thirty other people on it, and someone sitting next to you.

It is all these things that Jeff Daniels’ new play, Roadsigns, gets at, touches on, explores and reveals. The play, an ensemble mood play, has original music composed by Jeff Daniels and his son Ben Daniels. The song “Roadsigns” on which the play is based, was written by Jeff Daniels and Lanford Wilson. The Rose has long had a close association with the now late playwright.

The play starts with Lanny (David Bendena), a singer-busker-poet out to find himself, and maybe explain himself to himself. The bus he is on is headed for Chicago. He is accompanied by six passengers and the driver, Walter, (Tom Whalen). Robert (Richard McWilliams) is a roving minister. Harmon (Rusty Mewha) is in the Army, headed for a new posting. Esther (Ruth Crawford) is a recent widow, sharp-tongued and heart-weary. Tanesha (K Edmonds) is a gospel-singing mother who lost her son to crib death, heading to Detroit with hopes of becoming the new Aretha Franklin. Francine (Kristin Shields) is the divorced mother of young twin boys. Darlene (Caitlin Cavannaugh) is a young woman at loose ends and unsure of what her place in the world is supposed to be, though she finds a connection with Harmon on the bus.

Watching Roadsigns, one wonders about the communication and intimacy that could unfold among strangers in a world of smartphones and neighbors on any U.S. street who never see or speak to one another and never set foot in one another’s homes. Today, those taking the bus would more than likely than not to be asleep or communicating with someone known and familiar via smartphone. In this way, the play and story has the mood and feel of another time–1970s maybe. But it is set in today’s world. Perhaps Daniels is making a comment here about how we have lost the magic of spontaneous meeting and friend making in a time of travelers more apt to be wearing noise-canceling headphones and an eye mask than extending a hand or opening up to a stranger.

The play flashes back with Lanny to a small club in Nashville. Our poet and storyteller had a big opportunity in music city that is perfectly emblematic of the mind-flow and dreams that might flow in the head and veins of a person with hours upon hours of road over which to ponder choices made and roads not taken. One of the aspects of life that is conveyed through each of the characters is how fleeting moments of key decisions and choices, can and do literally change the course of one’s entire life.

As ever, Director Guy Sanville keeps the pacing of the play in the left lane, and the cast meshes beautifully. Besides the Daniels’ songs, there is the inclusion of “Amazing Grace” in the story, which is sung with gusto by K Edmonds, whose gospel/blues infused vocals are always spot on and inspiring. Sometimes I wonder if this theater’s playwrights write characters with McWilliams in mind. That could have been the case with Daniels since the actor is frequently cast at the Rose. McWilliams nails the soggy minister, but then peppers his characterization with a jaunty dance around the stage. He then adeptly switches gears to inhabit another character, that of the all-business Nashville song-house owner who gives Lanny a tough decision to make, in the busker’s flashback.

Tom Whalen, a fixture at The Rose in an array of character roles over the years, finds a nice space with the bus driver character, responsible for the lives of his passengers, but he’s not without his own past pain that tugs at his elbows as he steers the big bus of life. Ruth Crawford’s Esther compellingly finds the space between angry widow who has relief that her jerk-husband keeled over behind the wheel of their car…and actually missing the bugger. These are the complexities of the characters that make this mood play a play.

One piece of stagecraft has to be digested. Lanny is on a small stage with mic, but he seems to be on the bus too? Or perhaps he is on a stage and the bus full of passengers below him are the characters of his poem and story? Any combination of these possibilities are open to discussion. But once you just accept that the characters are in one another’s heads and communing, then it doesn’t matter that much. Sarah Pearline designed the set that serves as a minimalist canvas for the actors, Shelby Newport the costumes. Lighting design is by Noele Stollmack, with sound design by Angie Kane, who also handled music direction and arrangements. Rhiannon Ragland choreographed and Danna Segrest is on prop design.

Daniels uses the journey to Chicago as a fixed arc under which these characters can impart to the audience what they are thinking, feeling, imagining, dreaming. Their thoughts, aspirations, regrets and loves are the point, so the journey and schedule to keep provides all the structure and frame we need.

Roadsigns is some of Daniels’ best writing.