Saturday, September 18, 2010

Radio Redemption

Radio Redemption

By Tom Wachunas

There’s a lot of talk these days about the impending demise of newspapers – you know, those things with words and pictures printed on machine-finished wood pulp. It seems that digital technology via the Internet is increasingly sounding the death knell of such bulky delivery systems for ideas and information. To an arguably comparable degree, radio as we’ve known it could be similarly doomed.

And so it is that, on the face of it, there’s something gently anachronistic about the subject of a new play by New Philadelphia playwright and actor Rod Lang, called “Air Check.” Part comedy, part drama, the production is directed by Phillip L. Robb, and was premiered by the Richard Moore Theatre Company on September 17 at Theatre 8:15 in Green. Most of the ‘action’ unfolds at the console in Studio A at WPOW (“We put the POW in Power”) AM Radio, and centers around veteran talk-show host Mike Barker (“The Barker” to his fans) and his night time call-in show, “Talk to Me.” In a stunt to boost flagging ratings, station owner Jack Peterson strong-arms Barker into having dinner (which Barker is to deliver) at the house of the winner of a call-in contest. When the reluctant talk-show host, whose faith in himself and his program is at a ten-year low, meets the winner, life-changing things happen for both of them.

Whenever Phillip L. Robb is directing, it’s largely a foregone conclusion that his cast members will be top-notch, and he’ll be at the top of his game in eliciting from them remarkably nuanced authenticity. Here, no one disappoints.

As The Barker, Rod Lang has the perfect radio voice – sonorous, warm, and authoritative. Lang is masterful at progressively turning that warmth into cold sarcasm toward his callers (and colleagues), and that authority into sardonic insults. His character has grown weary of his routine, and apathetic to the “community bulletin board” direction of his show. He’s just as masterful in portraying his character’s catharsis as a result of meeting the contest winner, one Ralph Pinkney.

That character is played with startling credibility by Verne Davis. In an ironic turn of events, we learn that Pinkney was once king of the talk-show mountain years ago (known to his fans then as Pinky Reese) at the same station before his alcoholic fall from grace and subsequent disappearance into obscurity and sober poverty. But he never stopped listening to and loving the station. Owning neither a television nor a computer, WPOW is his only real link to the world, the only voice that calls him out of his past. In his encounter with the jaded Barker, he imparts some timely and very poignant advice. Davis’s portrayal of contrition and nervous timidity is artful and riveting, as is his own transformation in the story.

Elsewhere in the cast, Denise Robb is a comedic marvel in playing the hilarious Trixy Walters, who hosts her own health and wellness show. Soaring high on sugar, she lavishes bubbly platitudes about self-esteem and the good life on her listeners as she gorges herself on mega-doses of junk food. Meanwhile, Jim Long, playing the ever-present and dependable sound engineer, silently mimics her conversation with sassy relish. Later he goes head-to-head with Barker in a convincing display of frustration and anger that gives way to a re-cemented friendship. And speaking of displays of anger, Robert Fockler, playing the station owner, turns in a genuinely commanding picture of an utterly furious boss when he learns that Barker co-hosted a show with Pinkney.

As stage writing goes, there’s just a hint of the Ghost of Literature Past at work here. I’m reminded of the transformation of Scrooge. And really, who could tire of stories that speak of compassion in how we view and treat each other – of how we are called to truly hear each other? By the end of this thoroughly engaging story, The Barker begins to purr, and his listeners are the richer for it.

“Air Check” at Theatre 8:15, 4740 Massillon Road in Green. Shows at 8:15p.m. on September 18, 24, and 25; also 2:30 p.m. on September 19 and 25. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens, available by calling (330) 896-0339, or at the door prior to performance.

Photo: front row, left-to-right: Verne Davis and Rod Lang; back row, left-to-right, Jim Long, Robert Fockler, Denise Robb

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