Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" was on the radio when I was driving to Everyman Theatre last weekend. At the theater, the radio program seemed to come to life on stage.
That's because Everyman has staged a touching production of John Olive's "The Voice of the Prairie," a fictitious account of the early days of radio. "Prairie Home Companion" and "The Voice of the Prairie" have more in common than the similarity of their names, however. Like Keillor's radio show, the play's strength lies in its compelling storytelling.
Its protagonist, like Keillor, is a bona fide storyteller -- a Nebraska farmer named David Quinn. A city slicker named Leon Schwab overhears Quinn telling what Schwab assumes to be tall tales and offers the farmer a chance to go on the radio.
The year is 1923, and Schwab has come to Nebraska to introduce the magic of the airwaves to the Midwest. He travels from small town to small town, making deals with local hardware stores to sell radios, setting up temporary broadcast stations on the stores' roofs, then moving on. Quinn asks him what the new radio owners listen to after Schwab's gone. It's a good question, but it's not Schwab's concern.
Schwab is a wheeler dealer, congenitally incapable of saying something on the level. Quinn, on the other hand, is as above-board as Schwab is shifty. And the stories Quinn tells -- mostly about a blind girl named Frankie whom he helped escape her abusive father 28 years earlier -- are "true fact," as another character puts it.
We know the stories are true because we see them acted out in scenes that alternate with and sometimes overlap Quinn's broadcasts. This is accomplished by having Quinn played by two actors -- one as an adult and the other as a teen-ager. While J.M. McDonough speaks the adult Quinn's yarns into a microphone, Kyle Prue portrays young Quinn. An easygoing lad, he teams up with Cathleen Kae's giggly, tomboyish Frankie, hopping freight trains and stealing food as they try to evade a national search launched by Frankie's father. By the time Quinn becomes a radio star, however, he hasn't seen or heard from Frankie in almost three decades.
"The Voice of the Prairie" has had several area productions in recent years, but it continues to enchant for several reasons. First and foremost, Quinn's stories are captivating tales of adventure, mystery and romance. In theatrical terms, the drama is structured with rapid, attention-grabbing, cinema-style cuts between the play's two time periods.
These are enhanced by director Grover Gardner's fluidly choreographed staging. The playwright intended the script's dozen-plus characters to be portrayed by only three actors, and though other theaters -- including Olney two seasons ago -- have increased the cast size, Everyman adheres to the original intent. The result is somewhat of a tour de force for McDonough, Prue and Kae, who make quick changes in dialects and personalities as well as costumes.
"The Voice of the Prairie" also shows off Everyman's new flexible seating system. Arranged here as an elongated thrust stage with seats on three sides, the configuration increases the immediacy of a polished production that is involving and nostalgic, but never saccharine.
'The Voice of the Prairie'
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 23
Call: (410) 752-2208