By Philip Pearce
IN RECENT MONTHS The Listening Place has been missing from the local stage to make room for exhibitions at the Monterey Art Museum. But readers’ theater returned to Monterey last weekend with a vigorous, well-acted version of John Olive’s The Voice of the Prairie.
Having never seen or read the play I was expecting spacious skies, rolling tumbleweeds and Woody Guthrie ballads. But it was all about the people caught up in the precarious early days of middle American local radio.
An amiable small-town story teller named David Quinn is dragged, protesting, into the kind of rattletrap prairieland radio studio you saw lampooned in O Brother Where Art Thou? A tinhorn wheeler-dealer named Leon Schwab wants him to help fill the breaks between vinyl record music with recollections of his early years as a sidekick of his irrepressible Irish immigrant father Poppy Quinn. David’s rambling tales turn into such an unexpected listening sensation that he becomes a star of the newborn NBC. But his success and the stories he tells are shadowed by the memory of a brave and psychically gifted blind girl named Frankie. She figured in his roving adventures with Poppy but disappeared one night without trace.
Carl Twisselman is marvelous, both as the nervous and reluctant Quinn of the 1920s and his garrulous, whiskey-drinking parent of 1895. He hits all the right comedy notes without turning Poppy Quinn into a stage Irish buffoon and as David he grows convincingly from a bucolic filler act earning fifty cents a performance to a likeable but shrewd (“Give me the money!”) star of the New York airwaves.
Richard Boynton, as always, has irresistible bouncing energy and a fine rapport with the audience as the sneaky but appealing Schwab.
Two gifted and assured York students take on the challenging roles of the teenaged David and the miraculously gifted Frankie whom he admires and comes to love as they whirl around the tricks and wheezes of a Poppy Quinn who could show Schwab a trick or two when it comes to wheeling and dealing. Tobey Malone is at times dynamic, at others wonderfully wistful as young David. And Sara Butler has charm with an underlying air of something scarily supernatural in her performance as a blind girl with second sight.
A couple of familiar delights of local theater round out the cast. Pat Horsley is emotionally powerful as a blind school teacher of the Prohibition era whose name—Frances—suggests she may be more than just a passing acquaintance of the mature David. And Fred Herro makes convincing shifts of character and dialect in a succession of bad-guy characters including a lecherous Southern clergyman who works his wiles on the desirable Frances.
Robin McKee Williams operates the sound board and directs in ways that keep the action clear and avoid tying actors to their music stands. Characters move, confront one another, pummel and sock each other, shout across the audience to sound booth engineers.
The script is both appropriate and tricky for reader’s theater presentation. Appropriate in that a talk and music radio background work well with actors stationed at music stands and at times working the audience as broadcast listeners. Tricky in that The Voice of the Prairie is a long play with far more plot and sub-plot than I have described. It made for a long Sunday afternoon, though the cast kept the energy unfailingly high. Act 2 seemed at times unnecessarily loud and active, though with wonderful line projection and clear character drawing. And the complicated story was crystal clear but there was a tendency to shout and gesture with more vigor and intensity than the events of the story always justified or made necessary.
Never boring, it plays for one more weekend, Saturday at York School starting at 2 pm and again at the Monterey Art Museum on Sunday at 1:30.