Radio Man at Great American History Theatre

Laurie Flanigan Hegge, Jon Andrew Hegge, Angela Timberman and Kendall Anne Thompson in Radio Man. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.

Laurie Flanigan Hegge, Jon Andrew Hegge, Angela Timberman and Kendall Anne Thompson in Radio Man. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.

Are you a fan of A Prairie Home Companion? If so, you’ll adore Garrison Keillor‘s Radio Man (at the Great American History Theatre, through Oct 26). It’s all there: Guy Noir, The Lives of the Cowboys, The Hopeful Gospel Quartet, The News From Lake Wobegon, performed with infectious zest by what GAHT calls the “ensemble,” a super-talented gaggle of performer/singers who rip into this material with gusto and verve.

This ensemble, rounded out by Jonah Harrison as the Boy (especially good; the energy level shot up every time he bounded onstage for an entrance) and by the fetching Sandra Struthers Clerc as our Host’s love interest, is truly the star of Radio Man. Everyone is good, but I have wax especially enthusiastic about Angela Timberman who reveals bottomless comic chops as the cynical stage manager and the goofily angry sister in the News From Lake Wobegon sketches. Also Jon Andrew Hegge, whose drolly expressive face, slightly pained and slightly sly, set me agiggle every time he spoke. This ensemble represents your reason to see Radio Man.

Oh, and of course there’s the marvelous Jay Albright, here performing quadruple duty as music director, pianist, singer and actor, excelling at each. Albright performs some highly tasty music composed by PHC stalwart Rich Dworsky.

Pearce Bunting plays the radio “Host,” an obvious Keillor clone, and Bunting threads this difficult needle with aplomb, quite believable as Keillor but also putting his own stamp on the performance. He’s understated, self-absorbed, rumpled – and powerfully passionate. Bunting is an under-utilized Twin Cities resource. At least in my experience; I’ve only seen him at TTT (As You Like It) and in a few terrific turns at Playwrights Center readings. Here’s hoping that Radio Man will be the start of a new phase for him.

Interspersed throughout Radio Man are scenes from the Host’s troubled past: his conservative Christian upbringing, his combative interaction with his executive producer, a portrait of the death of the Host’s father, and of his ever-suffering and ever-patient girlfriend Mary Louise. There is a scene in which Mary Louise describes her shocking (to the Host) familiarity with the Host’s parents; Bunting and Clerc play this brilliantly. The News From Lake Wobegon, a portrait of Byron Tollefson’s sudden death and the stunned reaction of his family, is staged at length. And all this adds up to…?

Well, I wasn’t sure. I kept wanting to make connections between the Host’s past and what was going on in the PHC scenes. But Radio Man wouldn’t let me. Does Byron Tollefson = the Host’s father? Maybe, but don’t hold me to this.  The past material fascinates but it doesn’t – quite – add up to a coherent portrait of a troubled artist. Also, Radio Man is long, very nearly 3 hours. Do we really need so much Lives Of The Cowboys? And three (at least) quartets? There’s fabulous material lurking here, but I feel that playwright Keillor needs to work further on the script: be more generous with the autobiographical material. Give the Host a clearer arc.

Director Ron Peluso does yeoperson work, keeping the play zipping along, eliciting excellence from his actors and making sure the design is, as always at GAHT, terrific. I was taken with Chris Johnson‘s large and powerful set; she didn’t give in (and Peluso didn’t let her) to the temptation to do this play à la “bare stage.”

For more information about John Olive, please consult his website.

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