BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at Washington Stage Guild
It's Christmas Eve 1946 in Washington, DC and you've ventured out into the cold with your family to the local radio station to see a live performance of Frank Capra's yet-to-be-classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Taking the stage among dozens of sound effects tools are some of your favorite local radio actors, ready to immerse you in the idealized world of Bedford Falls and the life of the town's hero, George Bailey. As the five actors and one foley artist take you through the sentimental story, they portray dozens of characters and create dozens more sounds as your imagination is left to paint the full picture.
Unlike most of us in 2015, the 1946 WGBS radio audience would likely be hearing this now well-trod tale of redemption for the first time-perhaps as a form of publicity for the recently released cinematic version starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. They would be introduced to George Bailey, a man who would love nothing more than to experience the world but for one reason or another remains stuck in his tiny, Rockwellian town of Bedford Falls, New York. After reluctantly giving up on his own dreams, he takes over his deceased father's Building and Loan and becomes a modestly successful local businessman. Having sacrificed so much of his own potential future to take care of those around him, George becomes a doting husband, loving father, and kind benefactor to his neighbors who provides homeownership opportunities to a town living largely in rented slums owned by the greedy, monopolistic Mr. Potter. George accomplishes all this despite the endless efforts of Mr. Potter to take over his company and own what little Potter doesn't already control in Bedford Falls. When a business deposit goes missing and puts his family, company, and neighbors in jeopardy, George pleads with his nemesis for a loan, only to be told by the evil businessman that given his life insurance policy, George is worth more dead than alive. It's here that the miracles begin. As George considers suicide, he is confronted by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, who shows him how dismal life would be for those he loves and has helped through the years if he had never existed. With a new lease on life, George returns home where the townsfolk rally behind their hero to replace the missing money and save the man who had saved so many of them.
Like the original film version, in the Washington Stage Guild's production of Joe Landry's adaptation, what you see--or perhaps more appropriately, what you hear--is what you get. The story is straightforward and diverges very little from the original, which perhaps, given how cherished and iconic the tale is to so many, is a good thing. The adaptation picks up on the original's sometimes heavy-handed winks and nods, such as cleverly naming the character playing the sound effects person "Art Foley." Still, you're left wondering if Landry's adaptation could have benefitted from more fully fleshing out the characters of the radio actors themselves or scripting in a few live radio mishaps that would have made watching this particular production a bit more multidimensional and dynamic.
Becoming immersed in a live radio play is a lot like walking into a dark room. Only here it takes your mind and your ears, not your eyes, some time to adjust. Director Laura Giannarelli's restrained and smart staging and thoughtful pacing quickly lures us in to Studio A at WGBS. She keeps things moving and creates enough visual interest and nonverbal punctuation to add clarity while not distracting us from the story or taking us out of our active role as live radio audience members.
The fun-loving ensemble members seamlessly shift from character to character and each get away with mugging to their "studio audience" in the most endearing and natural ways. Despite this production's focus on voice and sound as the primary storytelling medium, the entire cast engages the audience on more than an auditory level. Joe Brack is to be particularly commended for his portrayal of young and cocky radio actor Jake Laurents (who in turn is portraying George Bailey). Brack pays homage to Jimmy Stewart's Academy Award-nominated performance, but smartly never comes close to doing an impression. Instead, he makes this version of George his own, which must be difficult given the archetypal nature of the character and the actor who originally played it. Additionally, while his character has few lines himself, Steven Carpenter's portrayal of sound master Art Foley brings the world of the WGBS radio studio to life (aided in no small part by sound designer, Frank DiSalvo, Jr.) by creating perfectly timed sound effect after sound effect--utilizing everything from corn flakes to high-heeled shoes. Watching the clever creation of these soundscapes is reason enough to see the show, though further design nods go to Debbie Kennedy's entirely appropriate and beautiful 1940's costumes and Carl F. Gudenius's realistic and practical set design.
With the holiday season quickly approaching, you'll no doubt have countless opportunities to watch the film version of It's a Wonderful Life in your living room. However, if you're looking for a fun new way to revisit a classic be sure to check out the Washington Stage Guild's charming and nostalgic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY is running from November 12 through December 6 at the Washington Stage Guild (Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church's Undercroft Theatre, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC). Run time is 2 hours with one intermission. Tickets are available at www.stageguild.org.
Pictured (left to right): Julie-Ann Elliott, Jenny Donovan, and Steven Carpenter
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography
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From This Author Greg Alcock