Play melds past, future of state's pioneering spirit

Sunday, July 14, 2002

The premise of John Gronbeck-Tedesco's "Prairie Fire: Parts 1 and 2" seems pinched: An astronaut returns to Earth to confront his Irish ancestors who are settling in the Kansas Territory. Instead of empathizing with the struggles the pioneers face in the wilderness, the astronaut scolds them for not making a better effort and putting future generations of the family in jeopardy.

"Keep your eyes on the earth so mine will be on the stars," he tells the Irish immigrants.

Gronbeck-Tedesco, however, has coupled the real-life stories of Kansas settlers and visionary fantasy to create an engaging script that reflects the adventurous spirit and physical stamina of those who settled the prairie. He captures the pain of losing a child, the disappointment of failed crops, the joy of community and the unexpected humor that lightens one's load.

Director-choreographer Marianne Kubik and her cast infuse the play with energy � from a rousing square dance to a vaudeville-like characterization of Pony Express officials to a chorus of castanet-clapping horses. The action is enhanced by the on-stage music of The Euphoria String Band, an old-timey trio well-known in bluegrass/folk circles.

Del Unruh's scenic and lighting design helps transport the audience from early-day Kansas to outer space. A sodhouse of packed dirt and prairie grass contrasts with the futuristic cabin of a space shuttle.

At the core of "Prairie Fire" is storytelling, and the masks designed by Mark Reaney and worn by a chorus of pioneers and Pony Express horses work toward that means. In a sense, the masks hide the actors' facial features and personalities and allows the audience to better listen to what is being said.

The only hiccup in the Kansas Summer Theatre production is the ending, which leaves the audience wondering what happens next to the immigrant family. But that's OK. Gronbeck-Tedesco has written Parts 3 and 4 for the series, which hopefully will be staged in Lawrence soon.

"Prairie Fire" continues at 7:30 p.m. today and Friday-July 21 in Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall at Kansas University.