Review: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

By Larry Laneer
December 9, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has revived It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from last season. I see a few changes from the previous staging. But the production is still so far off the mark, it could be accused of false advertising.

PTC put its long-running A Territorial Christmas Carol on hold last year, replacing it with It’s a Wonderful Life. On paper, this looks like a great idea. The playwright Joe Landry adapted Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” and Frank Capra’s 1946 film into this stage version. Landry sets the play in the late 1940s, when dramas were performed on radio before live audiences. The actors wear period clothing, read from scripts, and a sound-effects man provides slamming doors, splashing water, breaking glass, punches to the jaw, among numerous other noises.

I saw this play at the University of Oklahoma in 2006, so I can vouch for the script’s worthiness. In fact, it’s great fun to see actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in conversation with themselves, and the clever ways sound effects are created. If you close your eyes, you can hear the show as if it’s on the radio. That’s the point of Landry’s adaptation. Radio dramas take place mainly in audience members’ imaginations.

The PTC production begins true to the script, following the movie storyline. George Bailey strives to save the family savings and loan in Bedford Falls, New York, and gets into such a mess, he’s thinking of ending it all. He wishes he’d never been born.

But about an hour into the show, director W. Jerome Stevenson spoils the magic of a live radio drama by inexplicably inserting an intermission into the production. Radio dramas do not go off the air for 15 minutes, so audiences can take care of business or buy drinks at the bar. What I guess would be called the “second act” takes up where the story left off, but before long Stevenson completely abandons the live radio play conceit. The lights change and the actors put down their scripts and go off microphone, performing as if this were a conventional stage play. Oddly, the sound-effects man continues his work.

It took me a while from last season’s production to figure out what Stevenson is doing. The switch away from the live radio play comes in the scene where the angel, Clarence, saves Bailey from doing away with himself by drowning and, then, shows him what would have happened if he had never been born, Bailey’s expressed wish. In the movie, this scene is fantastical. Angels do not come to Earth and show people what life would be like if they’d never been born. Stevenson seems to be trying to achieve the same fantastical effect by changing the production from a live radio play to a 21st-century stage drama.

Landry has not written the script this way, so why Stevenson would make these intrusions is beyond me. Throughout the production, Stevenson lays a heavy hand on the show. He has actors constantly moving around the stage to different microphones and has them pantomime action in the script (such as eating or talking on telephones). Would radio actors do these things?

Stevenson is the director; he can do whatever he wants.  But some fine performances are lost in the superfluity. Joshua McGowen plays a credible George Bailey, although you may wonder why the upstate New York character sometimes lapses into a Southern drawl. James A. Hughes is terrific as Old Man Potter and in several other roles. Kara Chapman and Kris Schinske Wolf play multiple females. The always-solid David Fletcher-Hall is Clarence, the angel second class. Timothy Stewart does a fine job in several roles. So, you see the production has a highly qualified cast.

This play is an excellent fit for PTC. The theater makes a realistic setting as a radio studio. If the company would do the script as a live radio play, replace the recorded music with a musician (an organist!), make the sound effects even better than they are, and let the actors focus on creating characters without a lot of extraneous running around, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play could be a highlight of any theatrical season. But, alas, it is now an opportunity missed.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through December 22
Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie
405-282-2800

 

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