PlayMakers Repertory Company (PRC) has selected for its holiday presentation an adaptation of a true American classic. It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, which had its debut in Stamford, CT in 1996, is an adaptation by playwright Joe Landry of the original story. Landry reduces the cast necessary to produce the work to five: the iconic principal, George Bailey, and a cast of four who portray all the other characters necessary to give a truly remarkable portrayal that loses nothing in the translation.
We see the cast assemble in the radio station WPRC in New York City. It is Christmas Eve and it’s snowing. We are the live audience of a radio presentation of the type that was well-known in the 1940’s, a national beaming of theater of the airwaves, in which most of the action taking place is in our heads -- small town Bedford Falls, where the story takes place. Listeners are supposedly familiar with the cast who will present tonight a performance of the Christmas tale It’s a Wonderful Life. As we hear the countdown to the lighting of the ON AIR sign, announcer and actor Freddie Filmore (Ray Dooley) addresses both the in-house and listening audiences as he introduces the cast for the evening. Playing the role of George is Jake Laurents (Todd Lawson); Mary is played by Sally Applewhite (Maren Searle); performing Violet is the effervescent Lana Sherwood (Katja Hill); and the role of Clarence is played by Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Brandon Garegnani). Filmore himself plays the evil Mr. Potter. Music is provided onstage by Mark Lewis at the piano.
The staging by McKay Coble places the trappings of the radio station upstage while allowing the entirety of the theater’s famous thrust stage to be blank for performance. Using 40’s-style microphones and a few chairs for props, the cast brings to life onstage the iconic tale of what it means to live and also what might happen if one person does not.
It would be difficult to imagine that there is someone out there that is unfamiliar with the story of It’s a Wonderful Life. Set in the 1940’s, George and his family -- Ma and Pa Bailey and his brother Harry -- live and age in the small town of Bedford Falls, where the small Building and Loan Co. run by Mr. Bailey offers an alternative to living in Potter’s Field, the tenement housing of the town run by the Scrooge figure in this work, the terrible Mr. Potter. George wants to see the world, but a series of events keeps him from even going to college. George is selected to take over the Building and Loan when his father dies suddenly; his life and that of his wife Mary become centered on the small but vital work that the Building and Loan can do.
By the time we reach the crux of the situation, George and Mary have settled into a happy life that involves four children and the friends that have accumulated over a lifetime of having lived in the same place. But the twist of fate that transfers an eight thousand dollar deposit from the bank into the hands of Mr. Potter leaves George facing financial ruin and a collapse of the reputation he has spent years of sacrifice to build. A no-way-out scenario and the wicked cackle of Mr. Potter bring Act One to a close.
Act Two brings together a despondent George and his enigmatic guardian angel, Clarence. This assignment, if successfully completed, will net Clarence his wings. But though Clarence keeps George from throwing himself off a bridge, George is far from being saved; he feels everyone would be better off if he’d never been born. This gives Clarence the idea he needs to convince George that things are far better than they would have been had that been the case.
This ensemble gives a superlative performance, easily handling such props as pages of scripts, which end up littering the floor of the theater as the cast moves quickly into the thick of the story. By the time we reach Act Two, we have been helplessly drawn into the center of the tale as Clarence teaches George what life in Bedford Falls would be like had he not been a part of it. Todd Lawson gives George a jagged edge to walk as he begins to understand that he has given Bedford Falls his best, and that is all that he can hope for in what he realizes is a wonderful life.
The combination of a divinely selected cast and some truly inspired staging give director Nelson T. Eusebio III a brilliant jumping-off point to launch this production. There is a true connection between George and Mary as they build their lives together and the ensemble work done by this cast is superlative.
PRC’s Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj calls It’s a Wonderful Life our country’s A Christmas Carol. This staging of the tale as a radio play keeps all the suspense and love found in the original while allowing for minimal interference from such necessities as costume and scene changes. PRC’s holiday production brings to us all the love and warm wishes for the season in a show that is minimalist in its presentation but dynamic in its delivery of a classic Christmas tale.