by Allison Mollenkamp
As you drive out to the Lofte Community Theatre, it’s easy to get lost. To look out over the tiny cornstalks and rolling hills, and lose yourself in patterns of glorious Nebraska sunlight and clear blue skies.
Eventually, though, you’ll find your way to the big red barn on the hill, and into the aisles of the theater. Voice of the Prairie feels appropriate out here in the countryside, as it looks back at a time when radio was magic and children jumped from rail cars without fear.
The show takes place in 1895 and 1923, and the 19th century sections follow young Davey (Peyton Douglas Banks) and his travelling companion Frankie (Alyssa Riha). There is romance here, though it is a chaste romance of the sort where you wake up next to someone in an alley with all your clothes on. There is also trauma, which is played fully at times and glossed over in others. In the safety of the theater, and of empty wooden platforms standing in for barns, alleys, and train stations, it’s easy to forget the peril these young people are facing.
28 years later, Leon Schwab (Mark Fahey) recruits a now middle-aged David Quinn (James Nygren) to tell stories of his childhood on the radio. The medium is new, and Schwab is living on the very edges of the law, often in trouble with the fledgling FCC. Fahey makes him charming, though, and when he smiles you know that he (and the playwright) will wrap things up nicely in the end. We aren’t going to see Schwab or Quinn in jail (for long) when the curtain falls.
Eventually Schwab is able to find Frankie, now Miss Frances Reed (Erin Jenkins). Jenkins gives the now grown version of her character a sense of old wounds not quite healed. She also finds moments to show the grin and fiery spirit we loved from the younger Frankie.
The cast is rounded out by Ken Snyder and Gary Williams, who do plenty of work changing costumes and playing a host of mostly not-so-nice characters placing obstacles in the way of our heroes. It’s impressive just how few people are in the cast and still pull this show off.
Kevin Colbert’s set is simple, but beautiful, and works for the many many locations in which the show takes place, with just a few additions. It is lit masterfully (by Lucas Hrabrik). The sign of good lights is that you shouldn’t notice them, and that is often the case here. Hrabrik makes this giant stage feel intimate when it needs to and as vast as the prairie when that is called for.
Sound also usually goes unnoticed, and that’s mostly the case here. The cast is easy to hear, and sound cues add good texture to the show. There were a few moments when actors screamed or shouted and their mics seemed to top out. These are extremely challenging to mic, I assume, and I commend the sound crew (Snyder and Colbert) on their efforts.
One (or two if you count multiple ages) of the characters in the show is blind. I was a little conflicted over the choices made in Colbert’s staging here. On the one hand, this character is given full inner life, which is nice to see for a character living with a disability. However, there are moments (and some of these may come from John Olive’s script), where it feels as if being blind is used however best benefits the plot. Is there danger outside? Well then Frankie can tell there’s someone outside. Is someone holding out a hand to shake that would be funny if she misses it? Well then she can’t tell there’s a handshake offered. These moments are mostly small and don’t take away from the enjoyment of the show, but I hope as a local theater community we can be conscious of how we portray people with disabilities, and that if we don’t know the answers we can have the humility to do some research.
This show has a bit of adult language and one or two other moments that would be a little intense for younger kids. I think the theater’s decision to call it PG-13 is right on.
Whether you take kids or not, take a drive this weekend. Get out in that sunlight and see how green the land is getting. Look out over the hillside and feel the wind rushing by as you drive down the highway. And if you get lost, just look for the red barn on top of a hill.
If you go: The Voice of the Prairie is being performed at the Lofte Community Theatre at 15841 Manley Road in Manley, Nebraska. Remaining performances are June 2 and 9 at 2:00 pm and June 6, 7, and 8 at 7:00 pm. Tickets are available online, by phone at (402) 234-2553, and at the Lofte box office.
Allison Mollenkamp is a reporter and producer for NET News. You may have seen her onstage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse or the STAGE Theater in Hickman. After a lifetime of moving around, she’s happy to find a home in the Lincoln theatre community. You can follow her on twitter @alliemollenkamp.
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