'The Voice of the Prairie' broadcasts at half signal
Some people who rarely or never attend live theater might feel the need to criticize the stage as a medium bereft of innovation or forever behind in a world where computer-generated film imagery commands our every "ooh" and "ahh."
So it's fantastic to behold plays such as Marie Jones' "Stones in His Pockets," a breathtaking two-actor drama about the plight of two Irish film extras cast both for and against their national stereotypes at last summer's Utah Shakespeare Festival. Add to that short list of technical stage marvels in John Olive's trailblazing "The Voice of the Prairie."
Olive's "The Voice of the Prairie" precedes Jones' 1996 work, and uses three actors instead of two to play a multitude of characters. The play's an unabashed exercise in both nostalgia and romance, transporting us to an era when radio was the Internet social media of its day, far more impactful on the human imagination than Facebook and Twitter can ever hope to be.
Along for the ride is Leon Schwab, an itinerate radio man in 1923 Midwestern America looking for sounds and stories to furnish his show. When he chances upon David Quinn, a farmer full of fantastic narratives of his youth spent on the road with a blind girl named Frankie, the two hit entertainment pay-dirt. As Quinn speaks into the microphone the audience is treated to his stories recreated live on stage, as he and Frankie hazard life on the run and take meals where they can.
In part because Frankie's blind, but also because the young Davey is held rapt by her fearless spirit, the two become inseparable until misfortune strikes.
Olive's play risks cohesion, thanks to a dizzying array of scenes woven from present into the past and back again, but the story manages a path forward thanks to its intriguing context of why stories move us, and what happens when real life overpowers their magic.
"The world's a strange place, isn't it, when a wooden box can pull ghosts out the sky?" Frankie asks in one scene, when her past sneaks up on her unawares.
The play takes its time thematically, beginning with Davey's upbringing at the hand of his salty Irish father before the story's main themes are introduced. The script's main problem, even for a play that honors imaginative powers at the dawn of the radio era, is that it asks audiences to suspend perhaps too much of its disbelief.
This flaw becomes magnified with even the smallest flaw in casting. Stephanie Purcell more than proves herself as Frankie, showing us how and why a blind girl might throw all caution to the wind to leave her abusive home and ride with Davy. Jonathan S. McBride, too, switches easily between the East Coast angst of Schwab, the energy of a young Davey, and a Methodist minister with asthma jags. It's on actor David Hanson that the unfortunate mistake in casting falls, if only because he's cast in so many roles.
Hanson excels as Davey's Irish father. He even convinces as the older Davey. It's just that, fine as his acting his, the script's manifold role changes demand he play two unsavory characters alongside his one, as older Davey, that's supposed to move us most when standing alongside Purcell.
In scenes where Hanson, as the older Davey, must follow McBride's version of the same character's younger incarnation not to mention Davey's father the credulity required to sustain this illusion eventually collapses.
Of course, some audience members might be more forgiving, as the production offers plenty of charm, especially in scenes with young Frankie and Davey.
There's no denying the love and respect director John Caywood, the Grand Theatre crew, and all three cast members extend to Olive's script. It's just that, in a chamber piece this demanding, with only three acting legs to stand on, the margin for error is small.
'The Voice of the Prairie'
A well-told, well-produced play about young America in the radio age that creaks under the weight of its technical demands.
When • Reviewed Thursday, Jan. 24; continues through Feb. 9. Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 23-26, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 30-Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 7-9, 7:30 p.m. with Saturday 2 p.m. matinees Jan. 26 and Feb. 2.
Where • The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State Street, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10-$24; at 801-957-3322 or http://www.the-grand.org
Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission