The American Heartland Theatre's Radio Gals, set in Arkansas in the 1920s, captures one station in its prime. It's run out of a modest house by kindly, yentalike Hazel Hunt (Debra Bluford) and a mishmash of souls she has swept up in her 500-watt world. Between agro-gossip and commercials for a "horehound compound" that tastes a lot like home-brewed gin are the sort of musical numbers that went out with the Lindbergh baby.
Hazel calls her crew the Hazelnuts. It includes the sweet and baby-faced America (Stephanie Schweitzer); a teenager named Madge (JoCatherine Payne) who's mute until she sings; and the masculinely dressed Rennabelle (Lori Blalock), who may not be heterosexual. At the piano and the bass are the Swindle Sisters, a couple of suspicious antiquities in support hose played by Steve Lenhert and musical director Anthony Edwards. Providing the flowery melodrama is Gladys (Licia Watson), who is a great thespian and chanteuse only in her mind.
Hazel presumes that her station is heard throughout one county, maybe two. But when a Commerce Department staffer (Dean Vivian) drops by to make sure her licenses are in order, it seems that, through luck or atmospheric phenomenon, people in faraway lands like New York are picking up the show. The WGAL menu seems to have broader appeal -- in today's jargon, the show's a crossover hit, making Cedar Ridge, Arkansas, the entertainment capital of the country.
The show's songs are by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, who have had better luck with hash-and-grits concoctions like Pump Boys and Dinettes. Until the lovely "Whispering Pines" (which could have come from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack) late in the second act, the numbers are mere novelties. "There Are Fairies in My Mother's Flower Garden" is as clumsy and precious as its title; others, like "Edna Jones, the Elephant Girl," take place in exotic locales (here, the Congo) that Del Unruh's homey parlor set can't quite pull off.
What makes the show, which is directed by Paul Hough, awfully self-conscious and eventually phony is all in its construction. The radio station is supposedly airing every conversation -- a 24/7 approach we're used to seeing on The Real World -- but many of the players are far removed from the multiple microphones. The mics are a problem in other ways; on the night I saw the show, two actors caught their feet in the cords snaking across the stage. Watching Cindy Layton's choreography became a test of patience and fear as I wondered who was going to fall on his or her face. Did I say choreography? Yes, even though it's a show about radio performers. That makes Radio Gals a show about a show about a show, but the creators aren't talented enough to cover that much terrain. Postscript: The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's Hamlet and the Unicorn's Bat Boy have closed, but that doesn't mean all their rivalries have ceased. Members of those shows' casts have been hitting the softball diamonds on Monday afternoons at Westwood Park to play the casts of Radio Gals, The Hundred and One Dalmatians and Grease.
Scott Cordes, who played the grave digger in Hamlet, says he's got game this summer after a couple of years off. "I have the traveling bag of bats, balls and bases, though it's been shuffled around," he says. Local actors began playing in the late 1980s, says Larry Greer. "And then, as people moved or got jobs or got sunburned, the attendance tapered off. Then we gave up. So when Cordes e-mailed me about starting up again, I thought maybe four or five people would show up. There were a couple dozen."
Cordes acknowledges that people have gotten hurt, which must be the bane of existence for directors and stage managers. Hamlet's director, Sidonie Garrett, hinted recently that it was all she could do to get through a Monday afternoon, worrying that she'd get a call that one of her cast had been beaned by a low-flying hit.
"When we played the cast of Grease -- well, we're not going to talk about it," Cordes says. Did the Shakespearean troupers really got trounced by poodle-skirted teenyboppers? "Bad. Real bad." Greer, who picked up a bat to play for Grease even though his wife, Lori Blalock, is currently a Radio Gal, provides more colorful commentary. "Grease kicked the crap out of the festival, something like 25-6."
Still, the 2 p.m. Monday games are one actorly get-together where the players can let down their hair. "There's no pressure. No one's schmoozing for a job," Greer says. "It's just good camaraderie. And it's a blast.