Home > Carol Davis, Theatre, Uncategorized > Fine cast energizes ‘Prairie’ at North Coast Rep.

Fine cast energizes ‘Prairie’ at North Coast Rep.

Jason Maddy and Amanda Sitton in John Olive's "Voice Of The Prairie" photo by Aaron Rumley

By Carol Davis

Carol Davis

SOLANA BEACH, California—It’s funny how some things in life come full circle. In 1988 two budding young actors, Lynne Griffin and Sean Sullivan appeared together in the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Theatre  production of John Olive’s The Voice Of The Prairie. From that theatrical tale, another and much larger production took place. The two fell in love and were eventually married. They have been together since, performing both here and abroad. They are now back in San Diego working together doing what they love best, being a part of team theatre. Griffin is directing Olive’s The Voice Of The Prairie with an assist from Sullivan.

We all have stories. Some of us have platforms others hope someone will give them one. Olive’s tale begins in 1895 and spans across the years to 1923. Three actors play at least 10 characters that parallel and intersect each other’s lives on their journey from Kansas City to Mountain Home Arkansas and eventually to New York City and it all coincides with the advent of the radio.

David Meyers, Jason Maddy and Amanda Sitton, all excellent in their role sharing; a young Davey, an older David, Poppy, Leon, Frankie, Frances and Susie all emerge as Olive’s tale (and tale it appears to be) unfolds with a young Davey (Maddy) and his drunken Poppy (Meyers), who just barely make it from their jump off a boxcar, give us a little peek into who they are and how it all got started.

Poppy (David Meyers) who is perpetually drunk is somewhat of a storyteller, goes on nonstop weaving yarns.  Davey is his go to person as he guides him from one saloon to the next, in essence, taking care of him. Poppy and his grandson Davey (Maddy) are hobos. Along the way and on their travels he fills Davey’s head with tales that almost seem hard to believe, since some must be attributed to all the booze. It’s the late 1800’s.

Life on the run and or drinking takes its toll on Poppy and soon enough young Davey is on his own. On one of his rest stops he meets up with Frankie (Sitton) ‘the blind girl’ who just lost her mother and the two take it on the lam with the law not far behind. The two develop some fame as they now continue their journey hopping off and on the passing rails. Since Frankie’s abusive and drunken father wants her back home, their goal is to keep under the radar. It doesn’t take long for the two to form a special bond/friendship/love affair.

Scene change, time change. It’s1923 and Maddy is now Leon Schwab, a small time operator and salesperson of a new fangled machine, the radio. By this time, Frankie is no longer in the picture (she somehow disappeared one night) but years later returns to an emotional and somewhat shaky (at first) reunion.  For now though an older David Quinn (David Meyers) who has developed a reputation for storytelling, is sought out by Leon to tell his stories on the ‘air’.

After some persuasive arguments by Schwab, Quinn decides to leave the Nebraska wheat fields he has been looking after for some time to now tell his stories over the radio. Most of his yarns are about his travels with Frankie the Blind Girl.

Leon realizes he has a gold mine on his hands as his audiences, with David behind the microphone, grow from town to town.  Radio sales multiply, the popularity of the radio advances as a major commodity and (fast forward) David becomes such a hot ticket that David Sarnoff wants him in New York to do a live show in front of an audience.

Scenes shift back and fourth (Marty Burnett’s background barn, planked set is multi purposed; a barn, hotel room, Frances’ living room, a radio station, wheat fields) as the three; the traveling radio salesman, the lone bachelor and the blind girl become the stories that make it into the minds and hearts of radio listeners across the Midwest.

The famous “Voice Of The Prairie” is David Quinn retelling his tales of adolescences so curious, adventuresome and unusual that many a listener might just have longed to trade places with the two of them.

Unfortunately, I found the play to be a bit tedious, redundant and my own mind wandering to my personal misadventures growing up in a time when radio (and using our imagination) was the most important object early on in my life and in our home but was soon to be replaced by the small round screen of our 10” Zenith TV.

Watching ‘test patterns’ was the next best thing to seeing, watching and hearing Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”. Looking back, I can now understand what the new Marconi invention meant to those first introduced to it

Furthermore, the ‘prairie’ stories are interesting to a point but Olive’s play rambles a bit too much and the flashbacks take away from those who would like to see in their own mind’s eye, what picture the narrator is painting. There is something nostalgic about listening to the radio (I have one on in my house all day long) that no other medium can replace. 

However, my differences with regard the play itself take nothing away from the excellent performances of the three-member troupe and the energy they give to every scene.

Jason Maddy seems to have come in to his own as young Davey, Leon Schwab and James, the hypochondriac pastor in love with the now grown school teacher Frances. His quirky humor, abruptness and fussiness add a dimension to his otherwise stock characters, especially Schwab.

He is on top of his game as he busies himself, tries to keep one step from the authorities (because he now needs a license to operate his radio show), convince David that he needs him all the while plotting his next moves. He does a great job switching characters and becoming them at the drop of a hat.

Amanda Sitton is always a pleasure to watch. As Frankie and the more retired Frances the Blind Girl, she offers depth and frankness, openness and sincerity and an authenticity that have become trademarks of her skilled acting career and to her array of characters. As the talkative Susie we see another animated side of her, entirely different from the more thoughtful Frankie.

David Meyers’ Quinn and Poppy the storytellers are in stark contrast with Maddy’s high energy Leon. Meyers is smooth, low energy, salt of the earth as Quinn and irascible as the Irish spinner Poppy. These combinations of acting skills show a fine balance with all three characters that brings originality and genuineness to their performances.

Kudos to Griffin and Sullivan for pulling it all together.  Sean Sullivan’s original music, Chris Luessmann’s sound design, M. Scot Grabau’s lighting (especially scenes behind the scrim) and Renetta Lloyd’s costume designs collectively give this “VOP” a fine look.

For a trip down memory lane, this just might be your ‘E’ ticket.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: May 29th-June 20th

Organization: North Coast repertory Theatre

Phone: 858-481-1055

Production Type: Comedy/Drama

Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive Ste D, Solana Beach, California

Ticket Prices: $30.00-$47.00

Web: northcoastrep. org

Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego

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