Folksy 'Voice of the Prairie' Strong performances mark new production of Colonial Players

October 23, 1997|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mix Garrison Keillor's folksiness with the late Charles Kuralt's warmth, and sprinkle in "Angela's Ashes." Throw in a primer on early radio days, and you have the ingredients of Colonial Players' current production of John Olive's "The Voice of the Prairie."

Set in 1923, the plot centers on Leon, who is traveling through Nebraska towns, setting up a transmitter to entice people to buy radios. To spur sales, he hires a farmer, David, to tell autobiographical stories on the air. These stories are based on his grandfather's experiences in 1895 Ireland and on his own adventures with a blind girl named Frankie.

The dates 1895 and 1923 correspond to milestones in radio -- Marconi's experiments of radio propagation in 1895 and the development of broadcasting in 1923. To the agrarian society of 1923, the little box that talked seemed magic, bringing the world into homes for which gossip from the local store had been the primary news source.

The magical properties of "ether waves" relate to the play's recurring theme of what is real and unreal. Is Frankie real? Are David's stories true? Can Davey hear? Is Leon what he seems?

This is a play about relationships -- between a gruff but loving grandparent and his devoted grandson; between an abusive wealthy father and his confused daughter; between two young handicapped people who learn to trust each other.

A Minneapolis theater commissioned John Olive to write "The Voice of the Prairie," and it was first performed in August 1986. The play was conceived for three actors, and although it has been performed with six, the Colonial Players' production uses a cast of three.

Each of the three actors plays at least three different roles -- moving in and out of different characters in a succession of flashbacks. All three must speak in a variety of accents and bring to life a range of different personalities. The Colonial Players live up to those challenges.

Director Eric Lund obviously has strong rapport with his gifted cast. Bryan Barrett plays Poppy, David, Frankie's father, the watermelon man and a news vendor. As David, he delivers a number of sensitive monologues.

Dan Kavanaugh plays Davey, Leon, James and a jailer. This is an astonishing range of characters -- the wisecracking New York con man, sensitive Davey and the neurotic preacher-suitor James.

Eloise Ullman plays Frankie, Susie and Frances. She ages 30 years on stage, going from an exuberant teen-age Irish Frankie to a dignified Arkansas school teacher with a seething inner passion. Convincing as a girl not constrained by her blindness, Ullman is equally believable as Leon's guileless girlfriend, a fan of radio storyteller Dave.

If any criticism can be made of this production, it is of the set. Pioneer radio gear is out of place in 1895 Ireland, but theater in the round makes it difficult to disguise such equipment. Lund, who was also the set designer, and the actors are assisted by lighting designer Dottie Meggers, whose skillful lighting helps the actors' many transformations. It also enhances the moods of several of the monologues.

"The Voice of the Prairie" runs through Nov. 15.

Information and reservations: 410-268-7373.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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