OLNEY -- Radio plays are nothing new. But a play about radio is a bit more unusual. And it's especially challenging if the play is not only about the magic of radio, but also about the magic of storytelling.
John Olive's "Voice of the Prairie" -- the season opener at the newly renovated Olney Theatre -- pulls all of this off. It does so, first, by celebrating the early days of radio in a tone so far removed from sappy nostalgia that at times it verges on being downright eerie. Second, as directed by Jim Petosa, the production shows a high degree of theatricalism. And perhaps most important for a play about storytelling, it spins a darned good yarn.
That yarn concerns Davey Quinn, a Nebraska farmer who's regaling the locals in the feed store when he's discovered by city slicker Leon Schwab. Part huckster, part visionary, Schwab travels from town to town in the Great Plains states, broadcasting from hardware stores that sell radios.
After one taste of "media exposure," Schwab convinces Quinn to give up farming for radio and make his fortune broadcasting tales of his unconventional childhood. Quinn's earliest stories concern his role in the confidence scams conducted by an elderly Irish relative he calls Poppy. When Poppy dies, Quinn hooks up with a blind girl named Frankie and helps her escape from her drunken, abusive father.
Olive wrote "Voice of the Prairie" for a cast of three, but Olney doubles that number, allowing us to see Quinn's stories enacted as he relates them. For example, the characters of young Davey and Frankie at times interact with Quinn's narrative, and at others, they take over entirely.
The production's eerie tone is due primarily to Alan Wade's portrayal of the adult Quinn. On the one hand, he's as easygoing as a drifter; after all, he's spent his whole life on the road -- first with Poppy, then with Frankie and now with Schwab. But he gets spooked when he tells his stories over the air. Cynical Schwab suspects he's inventing the stories.
But Quinn is frightened because the stories are all too real. He lost track of Frankie three decades ago, and he's been haunted by his fear of finding her -- and of not finding her -- ever since.
As Schwab, Harry A. Winter brings just the right period touch to this high-strung New Yorker brimming with get-rich-quick schemes.
The other performances are competent, although Jim Dubensky and Carolyn Pasquantonio are a little precious as young Davey and Frankie. In an odd bit of typecasting, this is the second time that Pasquantonio has played a blind girl at Olney.
Valerie Leonard adds a note of poignancy to the adult Frankie. But despite valiant efforts, Bill Grimmette is asked to stretch a bit too far in five roles ranging from Irish Poppy to an asthmatic Methodist minister to a jailer.
A final word about Olney's recent renovations. The playhouse's rural charm has been maintained, while theatergoers' comfort and sightlines have been greatly improved. All told, it's a right inviting place to set a spell and take in a story or two.
What: "Voice of the Prairie."
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108), Olney.
When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2:30 p.m. matinees Sundays; 2:30 p.m. May 8; and 2 p.m. May 13. Through May 23.
Call: (301) 924-3400.