‘The Voice of the Prairie’ hits the JRT airwaves
Bottom, a young and blind Frankie, played by Michelle Johnson, feels the face of Davey Quinn, played by Corey Tickles. At center, Leon Schwab, played by Ricky Pentland, the traveling con artist who broadcasts Davey’s childhood adventures. Top, an older David Quinn, played by Jeff Reese, is wooed by a woman named Susie, played by Lacie Black.
“I don’t know what it is about this play,” said Gaines, co-director of Jonesborough Repertory Theatre’s latest production, which opened May 3. “It’s Jonesborough, with its story of a storyteller. It’s history. It’s really good writing.”
And, according to audience members at “friends and family night” last week, it’s really good theater, as well.
“It’s the type of story that people aren’t used to hearing,” said Cory Rowenhorst of Jonesborough. “It’s a mixture of sad and happy, but it left you feeling good in the end. I really enjoyed it.”
Part dramatic comedy, part romance, “Voice,” written by John Olive, tells the story of a Leon Schwab, a traveling con artist who meets a farmer named Davey Quinn in Nebraska.
Schwab convinces Davey to travel with him, broadcasting stories of Davey’s boyhood adventures in 1895 to a growing audience.
The stories, rich with imagery and emotion, center around a blind girl named Frankie, and soon all of the Midwest becomes enamored with their bittersweet romantic tale.
“This play was given to me three years ago, and as I read it, I just kept falling in love with it,” Gaines said. “I even used scenes from ‘Voice’ in my advanced directing class at East Tennessee State University.”
When, as a member of JRT’s play-finding committee, she had the opportunity to present it as an option for the season, she couldn’t resist.
“It has everything,” Gaines said. “It gives you a feel for the late 1800s when Davey is young and the 1920s when radio was getting its start. It’s about the art of storytelling. It’s magic.”
Co-director Lacie Black, a 2012 Milligan College graduate and longtime JRT participant, believes part of that magic lies in the imagination of the audience members.
“We wanted the emphasis to be on the story, not necessarily the set,” Black said. “Voice” is her JRT directing debut.
“As in radio and storytelling, audience members use their imagination, and what they create in their minds is so much better than anything we could set out there.”
Audience member Frances Pentland of Elizabethton agreed. She especially liked the scenes that featured both young and old Davey; one telling the story, the other acting it out.
“It’s really good,” said Pentland, whose husband, Ricky, plays the part of Leon Schwab. “It’s humorous and it’s serious. There’s a lot more emotion in it then I thought there would be.”
For Pam Johnson, in the audience to support her daughter Michelle in the role of Frankie, “The Voice of the Prairie” was a play able to reach her on many levels.
As a mother, she said, she was proud of Michelle’s deft, incandescent performance as a young blind girl bursting with the joy of life. As an audience member, she delighted in the story of Davey and Frankie, played out before it’s first live audience.
And as a sometimes director at JRT, who will be returning for “The Jungle Book” next year, she was fascinated by the process that had turned a collection of words on paper into a heartwarming production that captures the senses and lifts the spirits.
“It’s hard to take off the director’s hat when watching a play, but I like seeing other people’s interpretations,” Johnson said. “The show is full of talented people.”
That includes Corey Tickles as young Davey, a far cry from his portrayal of Gollum in “The Hobbit” earlier in the JRT season.
“This whole community is filled with people like that. I am amazed at their range,” Johnson said.
And like any really good play, this one is bursting with perfect moments. “I am so proud,” Black said. “This play will not disappoint.”
“The Voice of the Prairie” continues through May 19. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $14 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors. A special Mother’s Day dinner and show package is available for $35 for the May 10-12 performances. For more information or to purchase tickets call 753-1010 or visit www.jonesboroughtn.org.