In the early 1920s, radio was an infant--not yet toddling, but already speaking its first hesitant words.
The FCC was a new idea of Herbert Hoover’s. The sounds were spreading through the air with amazing power to mesmerize anyone who had a crystal set. Listeners were fascinated with farm reports, remote broadcasts of dance band performances, and the first squeaks of pure entertainment.
That’s the world of playwright John Olive’s “The Voice of the Prairie,” in an affectionate and tidy production at Orange Coast College. It’s interesting that Olive is not old enough to remember the Golden Age of Radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s, much less the hayseed aura of much of its earlier material.
It’s just as interesting that a student-directed production of his play is able not only to realize the sepia shadings of the period, but to capture almost unerringly the poetic period tone of Olive’s writing.
The only giveaway is the continual mispronunciation of the medium through which the public generally believed the sound traveled: the “ether.” Director Heather deMichele should have checked a dictionary; if you don’t know a word, look it up.
Otherwise she guides the piece with fine dramatic flow and a command of Olive’s rapid changes of time (back and forth from 1895 to 1923). She knows what to do with emotional reactions as they evolve in the various periods. She also adds an additional fillip, not in the script, having the actors provide sound effects radio-style, just as it was done during early broadcasts.
“The Voice of the Prairie” belongs to Davey Quinn, who tells homespun stories about his life, particularly about his youthful adventurers with a runaway blind girl named Frankie.
The stories entrance his listeners and start him on the road to fame and fortune when he’s summoned to New York by NBC founder David Sarnoff. But that’s the end of the story. It begins when Davey is a kid, tagging along with Poppy, a vagrant hustler who tells stories for coins and booze.
When Poppy dies, Davey meets Frankie, and they adventure throughout the South until Frankie is caught and returned to her abusive father. Davey and Frankie don’t meet again until he’s famous on radio and she’s the only blind teacher in Arkansas. The result of that meeting is Olive’s comment on the worth of media success and the danger it holds for those who desire it.
There is some scripted doubling in Olive’s time-and-place jigsaw puzzle. Sean Cox is totally effective as the older Davey, slightly brash, even for a farm boy, but doesn’t have the mythic depth or tragic patina for Poppy. Anna Fitzwater plays a small-town flapper fan to good effect but is much surer in her controlled portrait of the older Frankie, whom she plays with stature and warmth.
Steven El Ray Musil, as the teen-age Davey, and Jenna Hibner, as the young Frankie, are both outstanding in their simplicity and their ability to re-create the restrained emotional hunger of the very young.
As Leon Schwab, the sharp-tongued New Yorker hustling radio sets throughout the Midwest who discovers Davey and starts him on fortune’s road, Richard Stauffacher has a fine, starchy air and impeccable delivery, although he has a tendency every now and then to become too large for the naturalistic tone the director and play set up.
Peter Kreder, who plays numerous country types throughout, is most convincing as the stuffy, neurotic young Southern minister who wants to marry Frankie but loses her to her memories of Davey and her future.
* “The Voice of the Prairie,” Orange Coast College Drama Lab, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Saturday, 5 & 8:30 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $4. (714) 432-5880. Running time: 2 hours.
Sean Cox: David Quinn/Poppy
Steven El Ray Musil: Davey Quinn
Anna Fitzwater: Frances Reed/Susie
Jenna Hibner: Frankie Reed
Richard Stauffacher: Leon Schwab
Peter Kreder: James/Watermelon Man/Papa/Jailer/Newspaper Vendor
An Orange Coast College Drama Department production of John Olive’s drama. Directed by Heather deMichele. Lighting design: D.P. Vining.