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THEATER / JAN HERMAN : 'Voice' Rides Wave of Radio Nostalgia

March 11, 1994|JAN HERMAN

There was a time when radio and television were considered the bane of the theater. They grabbed off its writers and stole its audience, at least what was left in the wake of the movies.

It's still true today, of course. Radio and television have supplanted the theater in popularity and, some might say, in significance.

But some playwrights refuse to surrender. They turn to the electronic media as subjects for the stage.

Consider Richard Greenberg. He faces the enemy head-on in "Night and Her Stars," a new play that bowed last week at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Greenberg takes an acerbic look at television's cynical adolescence. He reinvents some of the real-life figures who were caught up in the '50s scandal of the rigged TV quiz shows. Then he skewers their materialistic values and satirizes a national mania for bogus heroes that both fostered and fed off insider greed.

In other words, "Night and Her Stars" exacts the theater's revenge. Greenberg sees television as nothing if not an exercise in moral debasement.

John Olive takes an altogether different attitude toward radio, however. He celebrates it, even exalts it.

His 1986 play "Voice of the Prairie," now being revived at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble in Fullerton, treats the birth of radio during the '20s like a nostalgic fairy tale full of homespun whimsy and romantic innocence.

Olive transports us back to a time long before Howard Stern or Garrison Keillor. It's so long ago that Leon Schwab, the play's wandering broadcaster-cum-radio-salesman, touts the new technology to the farmers of Kansas with this quaint refrain: "The magic of the ether is the wave of the future."

Leon, who calls himself "duh voice udda prairie," hails from the East, with a New York accent so thick it seems more of a wonder that any of the farmers can understand him. But they do.

They start buying those newfangled radios by the armload, especially after Leon puts a bashful storyteller named David Quinn on the air.

Quinn has many tall, sad, touching stories to tell about a boy named Davey and his drunken Poppy and Davey's blind girlfriend Frankie, a brave and beautiful runaway.

Soon everyone on the prairie seems to be tuning in. Back in New York, David Sarnoff himself eventually hears of Quinn and offers him a show on Sarnoff's brand-new network, called the National Broadcasting Company.

As we are reminded late in the play, just in case we haven't felt the proper sense of awe: "The world is a strange place, isn't it, when wooden boxes can pull ghosts out of the sky?"

The amateur Vanguard production manages to capture the naive tone of the piece without much difficulty. Director Dan Rosenblatt keeps the action flowing among various times and places between 1923 and 1895 in a bare theatrical space that leaves scenic particulars largely to the imagination.

The dreamlike effect of the staging suits the play's shifting landscape and helps mitigate the predictable routine of constant flashbacks.

As Quinn spins his yarns, we see them enacted: Poppy conning people for drinks with his gift of gab; Poppy having snake-filled nightmares of delirium tremens; Davey and Frankie meeting by accident; Davey and Frankie hopping boxcars together; Davey and Frankie catching barnyard chickens and stealing watermelons, Davey and Frankie being parted, seemingly forever.

"Voice of the Prairie" also delivers a final plot twist about Davey and Frankie that would warm the cockles of any heart.

As Leon, Todd Crabtree has all the gusto he needs and more. He is ebullient, humorous and brassy. But would someone please tell him to stop shouting?

John Lynd is not a natural actor and comes off stiffly as Quinn. His performance is likable enough, just not credible. On the other hand, he speaks at a conversational level--for which this reviewer was deeply grateful.


David Kinwald offers a fine, nicely shaded portrait of Poppy. Wendy Abas is totally convincing as the blind Frankie; Brian Miller is fresh as Davey; Debbie Grattan lends texture and luminosity to Frances, an important but basically colorless role, and Robert Knapp fulminates effectively as James, the Methodist minister.

Meanwhile, the decibel level of the entire production ought to be turned down and the lighting turned up. Many scenes are too dim.

There's nothing wrong with going in for moody lighting. But keeping scenes so dim as to prevent us from seeing anything except vague outlines is a bit too moody.

While radio may have been made for listening in the dark, this is still the theater--isn't it?

* "Voice of the Prairie," Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699 S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursday-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends April 2. $10-$14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

David Kinwald: Poppy

Brian Miller: Davey

Todd Crabtree: Leon Schwab

John Lynd: David Quinn

Wendy Abas: Frankie

Marcia Bonnitz: Susie

Debbie Grattan: Frances

Robert Knapp: James

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of a play by John Olive. Directed by Dan Rosenblatt. Producer: Terry Gunkel. Set and costume designer: Michael Keith Allen. Lighting designer: Terry Gunkel. Sound design: Hugh Haiker and Wade Williamson. Stage manager: Wade Williamson. Lighting technicians: James Cude and Joseph Saenz.

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