Secrets, traditions and strong drink take centerstage in James Kuhl’s The Kings of Unionville, a comedy that caps the seventh season at Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre (TPT), where Kuhl is artistic director. In the play, the titular five-member secret society meets to play cards and share stories. Edward is the historian, although it’s not clear what he chronicles, since a society bylaw prohibits taking minutes, and the treasurer’s job is to collect beer money.
But was it always this way? Will, Ed’s son, wants to know more about the Kings, whose ranks included not only his father but grandfather and great-grandfather. Although the group has passed secrets from father to son for decades, when there’s finally an opening for Will, Edward insists that the inductee submit to an abandoned initiation ritual—a rite with something of a history itself. “Sometimes tradition,” Will suggests sardonically, “is just something you were stupid enough to do twice.”
Director Brian Sage, a frequent presence on TPT’s stage, says part of what attracts him to the play is that Kuhl captures “the gentleness of what it means to have male companionship, friendship and brotherhood through a ‘mid-Michigan lens,’” something he says is evident in more than the play’s language. “I recognize these characters from my life.”
Sage made the real-life correlation literal by casting father and son John and Joe Seibert as Edward and Will, respectively. Says the elder Seibert, “James captures that exhilaration and love you can feel, along with the inability sometimes to express that love,” in a play about “the dangers and inevitability of secrets, and the importance and folly of tradition.”
Kuhl, who apprenticed at Jeff Daniels’s Purple Rose Theatre before doing an MFA in acting at Wayne State University in Detroit, says that early kernels of the play came to him after he encountered Daniels’s plays, especially one about men who hunt and bond, and another about a father-son relationship. But these germs “only started to gestate when I became a father myself.”
The Kings of Unionville marks a milestone for TPT: It’s the troupe’s first foray into original work, apart from a “sandbox” series of staged readings. Kuhl says it won’t be the last: Next season, TPT plans a world premiere from Michigan favorite Joseph Zettelmaier. After all, some traditions begin with something you were smart enough to try once.