The five people you meet in heaven got front-row seats at the Purple Rose Theatre for the world premiere of Mitch Albom's new play, And the Winner Is. "I wouldn't miss this even for another chance at redemption," one says, and the other four nod. In the lobby, theater founder Jeff Daniels, clad in his customary outfit of jeans, boots and a plaid shirt, exudes the kind of enthusiasm that we've come to expect from Chelsea's homegrown Hollywood star.
"It's exciting to premiere yet another piece by this renowned local playwright," Daniels says, while pausing to sign autographs for what appears to be a couple of towheaded kids from mid-Michigan.
The Purple Rose's intimate black-box space was the appropriate venue for Albom's gripping, poignant, heartwarming, thought-provoking, vaguely familiar comedy-drama about learning life's lessons a bit late, but by an unlikely twist of fate getting one last shot at moral rectitude.
The prolific Albom continues to grow by leaps and bounds as a playwright, always reaching for new philosophical and ethical insights. In his last play, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, a duck hunter shot someone who turned out to be a visitor from Heaven. In this play, a man wakes up in an Irish bar to discover he's dead, and the bar is really the after-life. Moving the setting from a duck blind to a bar was a stroke of genius, running the gamut of Midwestern male experience. And audiences surely will have been left guessing whether the bartender himself was a messenger from Heaven. Even Frank Capra could never have imagined so many ways to tweak the plot of It's a Wonderful Life.
As one of the lead characters in the play, the redoubtable David Wayne Parker is as reliable and as short as ever. As another character in the cast, Jerri Doll is intriguingly ambiguous as to gender. Cast members Paul Hopper, Sarab Kamoo, Patrick Kenny and Grant Krause or their respective understudies all performed with gusto and/or aplomb, and, no doubt in the case of at least one of them, soulfulness.
The veteran helmsman Guy Sanville directed the opening-night show with his customary competence, seemingly bringing off the performance with nary a hitch. As one would expect in an Albom play, there was plenty of tugging at the heartstrings interspersed with guffaws and life-changing insights. Intermission came in timely fashion, unless the play was being presented as a one-act work. You never know at the Purple Rose, a place where spontaneity is part of the tradition.
The venue helped remind those who were there of the fragility of life and the importance of connecting with fellow souls, like rubbing elbows with certainly at least a few University of Michigan professors and maybe a local farming family. It just had to be that kind of Purple Rose crowd: diverse, yet bonded together by their love of the kind of truth and immediacy that only live theater can bring. Each performance is a surprise, like each day of life itself, and can never be anticipated. In the end, that raw authenticity is what separates a play and the course of each man's journey from major movie and book deals. Who knows? This roller-coaster play of human emotions could even be the perfect way to relax for basketball stars like Jason Richardson or Mateen Cleaves. You could certainly sense the excitement of their presence.
The only thing missing from the gala opening night was the busy playwright himself. He begged off, saying he had to cover baseball's All-Star Game in Detroit.
Runs June 23-Aug. 7 at Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St., Chelsea; 734-433-7673.Michael Betzold is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for Metro Times. An ethics investigation into this article has already begun. Send evidence to [email protected]