American Magic

The Voice of the Prairie is almost certainly the strongest offering from Palm Beach Dramaworks this season, and that's saying a lot. Though it's been a favorite of the nation's regional theaters for going on 20 years, John Olive's Voice has never had the arty cachet of Harold Pinter's Betrayal or been recognized for the kind of world-historic commentary dripping from every moment of Arthur Miller's The Price — two other recent PBD productions that, placed next to The Voice of the Prairie, look grumpy and stolid.

Voice initially zooms in on two men, one a born American and the other a naturalized Irishman. They are a father and son who wander from town to town and tavern to tavern, the elder telling stories in a thick brogue while the younger pretends to be deaf, the two cadging money and whiskey from whoever's willing to give. When "Pappy" dies, the young man — Davey Quinn, really only a child — is frightened and on his own till he meets Frankie the Blind Girl, desperate to escape her father and ride the rails. Together, they enact a ritual of freedom, disobeying laws of biology ("We need to eat!" "No we don't!"), social convention (stealing chickens and watermelons), and common sense (blind people should not, generally speaking, jump freight). When outside forces intervene and the two are split up, their dream of freedom is ended, and the two are frozen, adrift in an America that tries to remake them as they briefly remade it. There we are left until many years later, when Leon Schwab, a confidence man, discovers Quinn's gift of gab and plucks him off the farm where he lives in solitude with his memories. Suddenly, Quinn is the inheritor of his father's troubadour tradition and the breakout star of Midwest radio; his stories of Frankie the Blind Girl touch nerves in every town they reach. By this time, Quinn is no longer certain that those stories are even true, and neither is Frankie, now a schoolteacher named Frances. Still, she becomes the laughingstock of her community when her youthful adventures are broadcast into the homes of fellow townspeople.

This is a love story tucked inside a parable about some of the nation's last real pioneers (the pioneers of electronic media), and it's a great deal of fun — both because of the wonderful, playful, and unexpectedly moving script and because of the frenetic, joyous life it's given by PBD's three actors. Caught up in the play's whirlwind motions, they seem like a cast of thousands, putting flesh on the bones of more characters than one can rightly recall, shedding their skins with a gleeful exuberance and a breathtaking feel for American speech, movement, and the fiery variance in turn-of-the-century American personae. Gordon McConnell is a soft-spoken farmer, a drunken Irish cad, a violent father, and a mean redneck. Todd Allen Durkin is a wide-eyed kid, a fast-talking New York shyster, a lonely preacher with vicious asthma, and a leering cop. Nanique Gheridian is the lusty young Frankie, the melancholy Frances, and a simpering fan — and in one of the play's more telling moments, she is the schoolteacher Frances playing the part of a seer named Ms. Emily, a meta-performance that has everything to do with the beautiful and passionate vision of America at The Voice of the Prairie's core.

It is a vision rooted in the American promise of reinvention — of self-authorship. This is the rope ladder to the American Olympus, willed into being over and over by men with names like Vanderbilt, Ford, Rockefeller, Meyer (Louis B., and not even a native), and if you accept the fundamental premise of reinvention — that public American fact often originates in private American fiction — Jay Gatsby.

America is fertile ground for this sort of thing, and reinvention permeates all of the country's most hallowed institutions — representative democracy, the market economy, the commingling of high and low culture within the popular sphere. Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol are great Americans, and what the hell, so is Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the American mind, Gatsby is more real than Gatz, which was Gatsby's secret identity all along, and F. Scott Fitzgerald is less real than either.

How much of this has to do with The Voice of the Prairie is open for debate, but I'll go out on a limb and say the play is about all of it, even though it is set before either Presley or Warhol were born. The very story is predicated upon the notion that reinvention — in the name of money as much as anything else — is not only possible but noble. The theme is partially represented in the malleability of Frankie's world (her sightless life so similar to that of the country's nascent radio-listening public, to whom spoken fiction can be just as real as objective fact). But it goes much further. Frankie's miraculously fluid universe long ago left its impression on Davey Quinn, who years later gives up his farm with barely a thought to join Leon Schwab on the road, acknowledging that the stages of his life, like the moments described in his stories, are transient. And it is a malleability that Leon wears like a suit of armor, his history of hucksterism and gross dishonesty transformed by willpower and money (described by Frankie as "American magic") into a career, a life, and a future.

When Leon sells his radios, he is telling a story about a future that is willed into being by the act of speech. When Quinn goes on the air, he is cementing a past — for himself, for the long-lost Frankie, and for the country he touches — that is more romantic and full of promise than whatever actually happened. Frankie's belief in that promise is easy: Her whole life has been a collection of fictions told and believed, and she can believe this one as easily as the next. By simply going to see The Voice of the Prairie, one becomes a member of the same fictional country that bought these stories and loved them, and the flash of recognition one feels as the play unfolds makes one wonder if it's a story at all.

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Brandon K. Thorp