The Midwestern plains are inundated. The lives of thousands of farmers and small-town citizens will never be the same. But wait: It's 1923, not 2008. And the disruptive waves are coming from the newfangled radio, not the swollen Mississippi River.
John Olive's 1986 play "The Voice of the Prairie" charts a geographic upheaval of historic proportions. In the impressively acted revival at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, the advent of radio technology is a veritable tidal force, an unstoppable transformation that caught the American heartland off guard.
Three actors embody close to 20 characters in this panoramic epic. The protagonist is David Quinn (Tom Dugan), a farmer whose gifts for storytelling are discovered by an itinerant short-wave broadcaster (Michael Matthys). The duo hit it big with a radio show in which Quinn recounts his teenage romance with Frankie (Ashley Bell), a blind farm girl with whom he embarked on a cross-country railroad journey.
An exercise in unabashed nostalgia, "The Voice of the Prairie" pines for an analog era untouched by contemporary forces such as global warming and the Internet. The characters sometimes express their own nostalgia for pre-radio life, when the only other voice for miles belonged to your nagging wife. The play implicitly frames American history as a succession of longings for golden eras past, while subtly acknowledging that such eras -- if they existed at all -- were imperfect and often fraught with uncertainty.
Like Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" or Woody Allen's "Radio Days," though with significantly less cleverness than either, Olive's play pays tribute to the communal aspect of radio listening and its ability to unite the different strata of society. It celebrates the vacuum tube's legacy and mourns it at the same time, creating a loving elegy marbled with sadness.
The three-person cast is excellent at delineating the characters with slight shifts in accents and body language. Playing all of the female parts, Bell steals her scenes with the sheer force of her magnetic stage presence. Her portrayals of Frankie as a prairie wild child and later as an unhappy adult are suffused with an intensity that never feels gratuitous or showy.
Directed by David Rose, the production finds economical ways to hop between the various periods dictated by the flashback-heavy story. A series of sliding screen doors evokes any number of settings, including a hay loft, a moving railroad car and a swank hotel room. The actors sometimes change costume in full view of the audience, a possible homage to the invisible backstages of radio play productions.
Old-fashioned in a good way, "Voice of the Prairie" purrs along without telegraphing a specific destination. The play doesn't make excuses for its hokey plot twists or sentimentality. If some of the dialogue and characterizations seem flatter than a Nebraska cornfield, that's because the playwright and actors are interested in evoking the broad contours of airwaves more than the signals they contain.
By the end, radio has become a national phenomenon. The corporations have moved in. This sliver of Americana is gone forever, but the Colony's production successfully captures it in amber, preserving its antique beauty with exquisite care and genuine affection.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times