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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
By Chesley Plemmons
Luckily, Live Radio Play doesn’t stray very far from its original source, the 1946 Frank Capra film, a staple of Christmas television and one of a handful of holiday films and stories that remain ever green. Staging it as a radio show is fitting, for when movie audiences first saw this film mass television was still just a blip in laboratory research. Aside from the movies, it was radio the family depended on for entertainment — gathering around the console after dinner to listen, with keenly developed senses of imagination, to programs that told their stories without pictures.
The screenplay for It’s A Wonderful Life was adapted from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern titled "The Greatest Gift. " Joe Landry is credited with writing Live Radio Play, but that should read “adaptation by,” for while the staging concepts are his and those of Long Wharf director Eric Ting, the story remains almost unchanged.
Set in Bedford Falls, a small Northeastern town just after the end of World War II, the story focuses on the life of George Bailey, a young man whose dreams of traveling the world are constantly being put on the back burner. He continually sacrifices his own future to insure the happiness of those he loves. He may come off as a bit too noble but his altruism comes from the heart and the moral fabric of small town life.
In 1946, today’s ubiquitous term “middle class” would probably have had little resonance. After the heroic unity of the war effort, the American public saw themselves as “family” without serious social divides. Those schisms were soon to surface, including financial inequality dramatized in this play by the greedy ways of banker Henry T. Potter whose foreclosures of homes and businesses could easily reflect a contemporary evil. George and his friends are the protectors of the American dream, but when George reaches an emotional breaking point and contemplates suicide, an angel is dispatched from above to show him the real value of his life.
The play begins on a wintry December night in the darkened studio of WLWT, a small radio station. An unidentified man (Alex Moggridge) enters and removes dust covers from the furniture. He’s joined by four actors and one sound effects specialist and the play begins. Moggridge instinctively takes on the role of George.
The other four actors get to play a wide variety of roles, small and large, and they are all on target. Of their major characterizations, I particularly admired Dan Domingues’s spot-on impersonation of the movie’s Lionel Barrymore in the role of the heartless Potter: Kate MacCluggage as Violet, the town’s bad girl; Kevyn Morrow as Clarence, the angel and Ariel Woodiwiss as the dewy and determined Mary Hatch, George’s soul mate.
Working with a junk yard of gee gaws, sound effects man Nathan Roberts becomes a sorcerer’s apprentice in charge of making “plunks” “bangs” “howling wind” and a myriad other noises. Set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams must have raided dozens of yard sales to come up with Roberts’ trove of magical toys. Costumes by Jessica Ford are neatly in period, and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting is fluid and effective.
Director Ting has coaxed some winning characterizations from his cast, but his blocking and stage movement is not as well focused. He has the actors moving around the small stage from microphone to microphone as they switch characters, which is not the way radio plays were performed. The more usual mode was in front of fixed mikes. In the dramatic scene where George is forced to look at what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he not been born, the radio device is almost jettisoned. Moggridge is allowed to pace to and fro in a semi-darkness delivering what amounts to an impassioned monologue. The voices of the other characters are piped in.
Although the performance is without an intermission, it is divided into three “acts” allowing for a little spoofing of radio commercials of the day during the breaks. None, unfortunately, are very clever. This is, nevertheless, an appealing and interesting production. From time to time, I closed my eyes and listened (which I suggest you do as well) and found myself transported back to the golden days of radio. While it adds little to the warmth or sentiment of the original film, Live Radio Play makes for a diverting evening in the theater proving there is more than one way to skin a cat or say “Merry Christmas.”
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