EASTON - It's a few hours before show time, and Carl Kasell and Susan Stamberg are in stitches.
The National Public Radio news stalwarts are giggling over the script of a faux commercial for the International House of Muskrat (Where Quality Is Not an Option). They will play themselves and other characters in a wacky radio drama about a lost American Indian tribe known as the Okeydokes, trying to out-finagle Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for a slots casino on Kent Island.
The skit is part of a wisecracking performance of Radio From Downtown, the Eastern Shore's beloved radio variety show, which returned last weekend after a four-year hiatus.
As always, says founder-writer-director-producer-emcee Van Williamson, the production has no redeeming news value - unless you count the cheesy plot for Case of the Sleazy Slots.
Stamberg, a self-described founding mother of NPR, and Kasell, whose rumbling baritone makes almost anything sound like a command, jumped at the chance to rejoin Williamson and the Downtown Players on Saturday evening for the first of three shows planned for this year. They are back at the Avalon Theatre, Easton's restored art deco house.
"It's really such a reunion for us all," says Stamberg, who signed on more than a decade ago when Williamson was producing the show at Salisbury University. "We all do so much heavy lifting, dealing with real serious news stuff at NPR. Here, you get the chance to be just plain silly."
Kasell, 70, says he grew up listening to programs such as Radio From Downtown. "I thought then that maybe I'd be able to do a show like this some day," he says. "Getting on stage in front of an audience is great fun."
RFD, as cast members call it, began as a jazz program in 1989, when Williamson was news director at Salisbury's NPR affiliate, WSCL. It evolved into a send-up of 1940s and 1950s radio theater variety shows, featuring such acts as Bob and Ray-style comedy routines and radio plays. From 1995 to 2001, RFD was a five-times-a-year fixture on the Avalon calendar.
The show's slogan: "It's not that far from art."
Comparisons to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion are inevitable. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, RFD is something of a marshy, saltwater version. Williamson, a producer for NPR's Morning Edition, says he is "flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence" with Keillor.
Recurring characters include Bif Delmar, Detective at Sea, a private investigator who lives in a double-wide trailer outside the Dorchester County town Hurlock. Played by Williamson, Bif is a regular at the Hurlock House of Liquors, most recently enticed from semiretirement to investigate the slot machine caper.
Muskrat jokes, especially remarks about the marsh critters on a menu, are a staple. Any mention of Bif's aging DeSoto is an excuse for squealing tires and gravel sound effects as actors read scripts onstage.
Rehearsal consists only of a couple of run-throughs the day of the show. The production is taped for broadcast on three local radio stations, and the video version airs on Easton's cable-access channel. The show is to return to the Avalon on June 4, then again in the fall.
In addition to everything else, Williamson plays guitar in the house band, the nine-man No-No Nonette. Scattered from suburban Baltimore and Washington to the Delaware beaches, members generally get to rehearse once before a cramming session the afternoon of the show.
"It makes for a very long day, but you get to work with Van and so many other creative people," says saxophonist Otello Meucci. "You have to be really good to do this on the fly. We do it because it's so much fun."
Sound man Jim Smith schlepped 700 to 800 pounds of recording equipment from his Martinsburg, W.Va., studio to Easton to record the show for radio stations in Easton, Princess Anne and Shadyside.
Longtime Downtown Player Colleen Sullivan, a real estate broker in Florida, hadn't been onstage since the last show, four years ago. She couldn't refuse the chance to do it again and made the trip from her home in St. Augustine.
As in Saturday's production, which also featured the Uptown Jazz Vocal Quartet and the Bayfield Brass Quintet, RFD has been a showcase for local talent. It has presented an eclectic mix of writers and Eastern Shore characters. This time, Williamson interviewed Tom Horton, The Sun's Chesapeake Bay columnist, and Mitchell Hughes, a 17-year-old champion duck caller who demonstrated his technique.
Guests on past shows have included state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Clarence Giddens, an African-American musician and impersonator known professionally as Black Elvis.
Radio from Downtown "has been one of the shows that people have consistently asked for," says Ellen General, the Avalon's executive director. "It takes a community and celebrates who we are."
Williamson's longtime writing partner, Jack Purdy, who lives in Baltimore and works for a Washington public relations firm, says the two wrote the latest script with one face-to-face meeting. He thinks the three-shows-a-year schedule might work out.
Williamson, who commutes from his Kent Island home to Washington in the middle of the night to prepare for NPR's signature morning show, acknowledges a little burnout about the time the show was mothballed in 2001. He checked other venues and thought about playing to larger audiences on the western side of the Bay Bridge.
In the end, he says, what he needed was a break from the grind.
"The Avalon is really a perfect fit," Williamson says. "Once we all get our sea legs again, the show will go along almost by itself."