The creative artists of It’s A Wonderful Life lost more than just future royalties when it accidentally slipped into the public domain in 1974. They also lost their emotional claim to the story. It’s A Wonderful Life belongs to you, me, and everyone. Like a lot of people, I have seen the story passed down from late night seasonal television, to scratchy VHS tape, to DVD, and then on to cable television. Each Christmas, usually about the time young George Baily is stopping Mr. Gower from mixing poison into his meds, I get drawn into the movie. I then tune in and out of the movie as eggnog is drunk, gifts are open, and politics are argued. While the central message of the movie, that no man lives as an island, still resonates, the details and the characters almost always seem an afterthought to me.
What I loved most then about American Theater Company’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play was that it reminded me how emotionally gripping George Baily’s story really is. The beauty of having the actors play 1940 era radio actors is that the audience is also assigned a role (studio audience). Frankly, given the extensive experience and talent on stage, it made me a little nervous to be starring alongside the cast. Mike Nussbaum (Clarence and Mr. Potter), for example, has over fifty years’ experience and is credited with the originating roles for no less than three classic Mamet plays (American Buffalo, Life in the Theatre, and Glengarry Glenn Ross). I had a few bit roles in elementary school plays. But I have to say that I, my family, and in fact the entire audience nailed our roles perfectly as we applauded on our flashing sign cue each and every time we were called to do so.
The flashing applause sign was just one of the many touches that deftly transformed the West Lakeview stage into a small Midwest radio studio. Tom Burch (scene designer), Amanda Sager (sound designer), and Mac Vaughney (lighting design) created the perfect space for a radio play to be told with polished wood, old school microphones, and subtle lighting changes that at times allowed the emotional power of the story to grip the audience. Costume design (Elsa Hiltner) was also spot on with 1940s era sport jackets and comfortable cardigans that made everyone feel at ease. A less realized production might be swallowed up somewhat by both the familiar story and the setting. But director Jason W. Gerace does an exceptional job of allowing the story to unfold without undue distractions. There are laughs generated by the nature of the radio play, but they are never distracting to the story. A good example would be the fine work done by Rick Kubes as the Foley Artist who is always working in the background (and not the foreground) to provide the play with the necessary sound effects. Likewise Rhapsody Snyder also added to the sound effects with mostly understated piano playing done at the periphery of the stage. This emphasis of story over gimmick allowed for a more natural and more historically accurate radio play feel. The play was still fun (complimentary milk and cookies post show, audience completed “radio grams” that were read aloud between station breaks, and a few on-air commercials to the sponsors were all crowd pleasers), but never campy. I for one appreciated that.
Of course none of this would matter if the cast was not up to par. It is a great understatement to say that they were. Cliff Chamberlain (George Baily) and Mike Nussbaum (Mr. Potter and Clarence) played off one another like the professionals they are. Especially moving to me were some of the speeches, known of course by rote for many in the audience, offered as almost soliloquies by Chamberlain. Lighting here was used to maximum effect as the studio darkened ever so slightly and the spotlight shone on an emotionally distraught George Baily struggling with life. Jimmy Stewart could not have done it better. Almost as entertaining, was watching the entire cast slip in and out of roles like a gentleman donning hats. The radio format allowed for this type of performance and the force and magic of their work was maximized by them speaking directly to the audience (via microphone) and not to each other. It was a joy to watch and a thrill to experience.
Bottom Line: It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is highly recommended but younger children may find it at times long. My third grader loved it, but I am not sure she would have last year. It is currently playing until December 30,2012 at the American Theater Company (1900 W. Byron) Thursdays and Fridays (8 PM), twice on Saturday (2 and 8PM) and on Sunday (2 PM). Tickets for matinee performances are $35, evenings $40. To purchase tickets call (773) 409-4125 or click here http://www.atcweb.org/ For more theater reviews and theater schedules click here: http://www.theatreinchicago.com/ Please note: A different production of this play is also running at Victory Gardens. Do not do as this critic did and go to the wrong theater!
Photos by: Katie Sikora