by Ruth Ross
On a recent summer road trip to Seneca Falls, NY (the model for Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life), we were disappointed to find that the museum dedicated to the movie was closed. Produced and directed by Frank Capra in 1946 and considered to be one of the most loved films in American cinema, It’s a Wonderful Life has become traditional viewing during the Christmas season. Indeed, it has become so ubiquitous that should you miss it on one TV channel, you can easily find it on several others! Who would have predicted such success for a film that initially performed so poorly at the box office?
Many people have seen It’s a Wonderful Life so often that they can recite the lines. Well, for a different take on this old chestnut, you might want to visit the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison to see their radio play version, ostensibly being broadcast live on WBFR New York’s “Playhouse of the Air.” Replete with sound effects, commercials from the era, and a generous dose of humor and music, this charming production brings the story to life in a new way and truly fills the theatre with the spirit of the holidays.
Eschewing many of the film’s iconic episodes (the gym floor’s opening up to drop George and Mary into the pool below, for instance), adapter Joe Landry has focused on the dialogue to reveal plot. And instead of the actors’ standing static before five microphones, director Doug West has them don various accessories and assume an array of voices as they move around the stage and interact with each other, much occurs in a conventional stage play.
By now, the screenplay, by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Frank Capra, is familiar. It’s 1945, and Angel 2nd Class Clarence Oddbody has yet to earn his wings. Serendipitously, the Angelmaster offers him a golden opportunity: George Bailey, faced with the loss of business funds, feels so desperate that he contemplates suicide. He had always wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world, but circumstances and his own good heart have led him to stay. He sacrificed his education for his brother's, kept the family-run savings and loan afloat, protected the town from the avarice of the greedy banker Mr. Potter and married his childhood sweetheart. As he prepares to jump from a bridge, guardian angel Clarence intercedes to show him what life would have been like for the residents of Bedford Falls had he never lived, thus averting human tragedy and earning his wings (Above, James Michael Reilly, John Ahlin, John Keabler, Susan Maris and Elizabeth Colwell behind).
With his silky, sonorous voice, announcer Freddy Fillmore (Leavell Javon Johnson, right) guides the broadcast through its 90-minute run, introducing commercial breaks, performing warm-up for the audience and generally keeping the production humming along. John Keabler is wonderful as George Bailey, earnest, honest and a bit awkward—channeling Jimmy Stewart in the film role minus Stewart’s vocal tics. As George’s sweetheart Mary Hatch, Susan Maris is a luscious peach of a girl, but one who knows what she wants and fearlessly goes after it. John Ahlin snarls and grumps about as “the richest, meanest man in the county,” Mr. Potter, his nasty malevolence palpable whenever he appears.
James Michael Reilly shows his dramatic versatility in the roles of bumbling Uncle Billy Bailey, whose ineptitude nearly brings down the family business; Old Man Gower, the pharmacist George saves from a tragic mistake; the Italian immigrant Mr. Martini; and Ernie the cab driver. With his expressive face and rubbery body, he fully inhabits each character he portrays. Luscious Elizabeth Colwell (above, with Keabler) is fine as both Violet Bick, Mary’s rival for George’s affections, and Zuzu, his little girl, while Tina Stafford is effectively efficient as both George’s and Mary’s mothers (the former competent, the latter comic, and Lila Scott, the bank inspector, who lets greed get in the way of her morality. And Russell Sperberg is the perfect naïf to play George’s brother Harry and Sam Wainright (“yee haw”), George’s rival for Mary’s hand. He does triple duty playing the piano too.
And finally, 18 years after he portrayed a young Dylan Thomas in STNJ’s production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and a year after playing Uncle Glyn in the 2016 revival, Andy Paterson (above, with Keabler) returns to play Clarence, the lovable angel in training who has waited 298 years for this chance and makes the most of it by rescuing George Bailey from mortal harm. His poignant recital of what Bedford Falls would be without George conveys the play’s real message: Every life is wonderful and meaningful, no matter one’s social status, education or economic. In an era when we hear, over and over, that some citizens of our country feel ignored, denigrated and insignificant, it’s a lesson that bears repetition.
Kudos to the troupe for the usual high production values. Foley Artist Warren Pace provides the evocative sound effects, and Steven Beckel’s sound design includes 1940s music and commercials to enhance the radio broadcast “feel.” Scenic designer Charlie Calvert has created an authentic broadcast station, complete with five mics, chairs for the actors and Applause and On the Air signs that flash when needed. And Natalie Loveland’s costumes highlight the time period and telegraph the personalities of the characters who wear them (Keabler and Ahlin, above).
It’s a Wonderful Life will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave., Madison (on the campus of Drew University) through December 31. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.
By the way, one look around Seneca Falls NY reveals that a selfless, open-hearted man like George Bailey is sorely needed in this upstate village, whose main drag is lined by many empty storefronts, and the word on the street is that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t very welcoming to outside businesses. But a visit to the bridge from which George contemplated jumping (it’s marked with a plaque) really brings the story to life. It’s a nice touch.
Photos by Jerry Dalia.