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More than a decade ago, I attended a production at the Gaslight, a theater in the basement of a beautiful Victorian house in northwest Denver. The play, Bent, was new then and revelatory, a terrifying examination of the plight of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The play seemed almost incongruous in that quaintly old-fashioned setting, but, paradoxically, the setting also made it seem more vivid and more devastating. In the intermission -- which came immediately after one of the ugliest stage murders I have ever seen -- the audience was invited into the dining room and served tea in china cups by a tall, elegant gentleman who told us a little about the theater.
Like so much of Denver's history, the story of the theater was shaped by tuberculosis. George Swartz, a tuberculosis sufferer and lover of Shakespeare, moved to the area for its dry, sunny climate. He had the theater built into his basement and presented all of Shakespeare's plays there. The tall gentleman who told us this over biscuits and tea was Paul Willet, who had taken over in 1964; his choice of material was as tough and risky as the space was gracious and his demeanor gentle. Willet died in 1984, roughly a year after presenting Bent.
Now, after several owners and some years of darkness, the house has been purchased by Wade and Lorraine Wood, and the theater reopened as the Denver Victorian Playhouse. John Olive's The Voice of the Prairie is in many ways the perfect play for this reborn space, and Terry Dodd, known for his insightful approach, is the perfect director. The Voice of the Prairie is rooted in America's history and extols the power of storytelling. As the play opens, an Irish hobo wanders turn-of-the-century Kansas with his young son, Davey, reminiscing and spinning tales. After his death, a grieving Davey encounters Frankie, a blind girl, and the two flee her abusive father together and commence a life of begging and riding the rails. They are separated -- by a not very clear or convincing plot twist -- just as their love begins to bud.
The plot flashes forward to 1923 to show Leon Schwab, a New York huckster, selling radios in little prairie towns. To tempt the locals and place his radios in hardware stores, he needs content. He finds it in the wistful stories that David Quinn, the now grown-up Davey, tells about his life with Frankie.
There are a lot of strengths to the production, which is directed in a gently elegiac key and opens with a series of evocative old photographs. Dodd has worked miracles with the confined space, using filmed railway tracks to create the young runaways' sense of space and freedom. The cast, too, is excellent.
The problem is that the first part of Olive's play, with its magical children, their story framed by the wonder and eccentricity of radio's early years, is literally a hard act to follow. We know that Davey and Frankie must meet again. But how does a playwright depict a fantastical elf-girl once she's grown up? How likely is it that the pure love shared by the children could mutate into something lasting and adult? It wouldn't surprise us to discover that Frankie had become a very ordinary woman, or that the two could no longer understand each other, but that's not Olive's game. Well, not exactly. He veers between possibilities without exploring any of them fully before settling on an unconvincing happy ending.
The theme of storytelling, so powerful in the first act, also loses some of its integrity in the second. It seems to me that David's willingness to commercialize his memories of Frankie implies something slightly unpleasant about his character. Yet Olive presents him as mildly and wisely heroic throughout. I couldn't tell if grown-up Frankie was meant to be prissy or kind. Schwab, a wonderfully presentational character at the play's beginning, gets more and more frantic as he faces penalties for fraud, but he doesn't reveal any further character nuances. And as for Frankie's Methodist minister suitor, inserted for comic relief, I can't imagine why Olive thinks there's anything funny about a man suffering a full-blown asthma attack.
Arthur Goodman is a convincingly solid Irish Poppy, and Harry Cruzan is funny, loud and rather sweet as Schwab. James Nantz exudes country dignity as David Quinn; Terry Ann Watts presents an intense and interesting puzzle as the grown-up Frankie. John Rael does well in a number of auxiliary roles. But it's Alex Hill as Davey and Katie Paxton as Frankie -- both actors still in high school -- whose quietly committed performances give this production its soul.
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