“THE VOICE OF THE PRAIRIE,” The Grand Theatre, through Feb. 9, $24-$9, 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org
The introduction of a newfangled contraption called the radio brought widespread entertainment and instantaneous news reports to America’s heartlands. But for David Quinn and Frances Reed, radios were “wooden boxes that can pull ghosts out of the sky.”
John Olive’s 1986 play “The Voice of the Prairie” receives a splendid production at the Grand Theatre. Impressive performances and sensitive direction are the hallmarks of this time-and-place juxtaposition of memory theater piece.
Three actors effortlessly and flawlessly embody more than a dozen intersecting characters as the play weaves its way from 1895 to 1923 and then back again. Jonathan S. McBride plays the young Davey Quinn, a hayseed Nebraska farmer with a gift for relating stories. While visiting a radio station one day, Davey encounters itinerant shortwave broadcaster Leon Schwab (David Hanson), who is looking for a more dynamic form of radio entertainment than simply playing music.
Davey evolves into radio’s first major storyteller who mesmerizes his listeners. Among the tales he recounts are his youthful adventures riding the rails with Frankie the Blind Girl (Stephanie Purcell), as she is taunted by schoolmates, who has run away from an abusive father. Just as romance begins to blossom, Frankie is captured and tragically returned to her home. Through Davey’s radio fame, the now-adult couple is able to finally reunite.
The bare-bones synopsis of the play makes it appear as if “The Voice of the Prairie” is an overly sentimentalized voyage of nostalgia, but the playwright skillfully presents colorful stories within stories that make the play unique and engaging. The play does require equal parts concentration and imagination on the part of audiences, but they are then richly rewarded.
At one moment McBride is the young Davey while the adult David played by Hanson watches the scene unfold, and Purcell quickly transforms from the tomboyish teen Frankie to Frances Reed, a spinster teacher in Arkansas.
Purcell is luminous in the portrayal of her characters and makes the strongest impression. McBride and Hanson are nearly matched to her characterization skills. The trio of actors is carefully consistent with the vocal and physical differences the roles require.
McBride also plays James, an asthmatic minister hopelessly in love with Frances, and Hanson takes on the role of Davey’s father Poppy, a yarn-spinning vagrant Irishman. Purcell is sweet and sassy as Susie, a star-struck flapper.
John Caywood shows care and genuine affection that make the play endearing, and his direction allows the actors to individually charm and influence the audience. Each word in the poetic script shimmers through the actors’ precise speaking, in both the straightforward delivery to the audience and interactions with each other.
The scenic design by Kyle Becker and costuming by Alyssa Edlund make significant contributions to the success of the production.
Content advisory: A few profane words of dialog.
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