‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’
Adapted by Joe Landry, from the 1946 movie
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
Through Dec. 31
By GWEN OREL
All through the house, you could hear people sniffling.
For the last 10 minutes of the show. Maybe 15.
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 holiday classic film directed by Frank Capra, captures so much American hope and love in its tale of George Bailey discovering what the world would have been like had he never been born — people cry hopefully. They cry wistfully. They just cry. And when the cast comes on at the end and sings “White Christmas,” audience members quietly sing along.
Really, you can’t help it.
Some adaptations make you long for the film, but not “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted from the movie by Joe Landry, at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
The story is set, inventively, in a period radio station for a studio audience. Nine actors play all the roles, and sound effects are created in front of us by Foley artist Warren Pace.
To create the sound of snow crunching, Pace explained at a talk back after Saturday’s matinee, he used corn flakes. Commercials for hair cream and “Dux toilet soap” are sung to the tunes of Christmas carols.
As director Doug West explained, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not an instant classic. It lost money at its debut, but it also fell out of copyright in the ’70s, and for a time it was played incessantly and year-round on any station needing to fill time. Since then, the paperwork was fixed and it’s back in copyright, so younger people might not be as familiar with it.
But many in the audience at STNJ seemed to know the movie by heart.
And that’s all to the good.
It’s touching, up close: when Bailey, who runs a local Building and Loan, stands up to super-capitalist Henry Potter, who is against the idea of mortgages to “garlic-eaters” (Italian immigrants) on principal, saying: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community,” the audience applauds.
The adaptation of course makes a few changes from the movie, with lines added where storytelling is done visually. There’s also a new scene Potter and the bank examiner, who comes to check on the bank the very day hapless Uncle Billy has mislaid a deposit (into Potter’s lap).
Bailey is about to commit suicide as the play opens, due to that financial disaster, and Clarence Oddbody, angel second class, is dispatched to talk him out of it. If Clarence can do that, he’ll get his wings.
That’s the conceit that gets us to see all of George’s life unfold before us: his childhood, saving his brother Harry from death, and pharmacist Henry Gower from accidentally poisoning a child; his young adulthood, called on to save the Building and Loan and marrying Mary Hatch; his “fighting the fight of Bedford Falls” instead of World War II due to a bad ear.
Grown-ups in 1946 would be the same age as George, and the scenes of his childhood, straight nostalgia. That’s not true now, but The America presented in Bedford Falls is one that most of us yearn for, a place with hope, welcome, peace and compassion.
Which isn’t to say the script is high-falutin’ serious: Bailey tells Clarence that whatever they do in heaven, money “comes in pretty handy down here, Bub,”
Overall the cast does the story proud. John Keabler’s Bailey has a Jimmy Stewart-like handsome sincerity without the awkwardness. John Ahlin (STNJ vet, and a 2007 Tony Award-winner) as Potter and in other roles is a standout: as Potter he’s oily. As Bert the cop he’s lovable and spry. As one of the Bailey children he’s so believable when he’s scared of his desperate dad’s temper that there was an audible “aww.”
Another standout is James Michael Reilly (in his 24th year at STNJ) as Uncle Billy, Martini (who owns the local bar), Old Man Gower and Ernie the cop. Andy Paterson, a 13-year STNJ vet, shows a Clarence who’s lovable, even competent.
Susan Maris, as Mary, is sweet but her choice to shake her shoulders to suggest pertness irritates rather than entrances.
Director West nicely brings out the comedy, and his choice to allow the actors to inhabit the roles is a good one. (That said, the standing mics should have some audible effect.)
West and Keabler beautifully milk the moment where George shouts, “I want to live.”
And from then on, I can’t read my notes because it was very dusty in the theater. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
You will too, of course. Bring Kleenex.