You know It’s a Wonderful Life, so you know what you’re in for: Ordinary guy George Bailey has endured so many setbacks that he makes a good mid-20th century stand-in for Job. We can count ourselves lucky if we’ve been saved the perfect synchronization of expectation with denial George suffers. But who hasn’t had setbacks, more than a few?
What Wonderful Life has that ours may not is heavenly intervention. Prayers for George’s well-being are heard and answered by senior angels, who delegate second-class-angel Clarence to earn his long-delayed wings by saving George from watery despair. Clarence succeeds by showing George tableaus of the many ways his life has made a difference.
There are people who say they can’t abide It’s a Wonderful Life, but I’m not one of them. Realism redeemed works fine for me.
If it works for you, too, Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Christmas production of It’s a Wonderful Life as A Live Radio Play will more than double your pleasure.
To suit the small Studio 111 — under 100 seats on three sides of a floor-level stage — the company has chosen a fanciful reworking of Frank Capra’s cinematic original. Playwright Joe Landry takes the story into the small confines of a New York radio studio. There, on Christmas Eve 1946 — the night of George’s despair and deliverance — five actors dramatize the show for home listeners at their radios.
Studio 111 is that radio studio, set up with microphones, flashing On the Air and Applause signs and the Foley props — a horn, a telephone, shoes for walking, a thunder sheet — that will effect the background sounds of the story.
Precision timing, one of the great successes of the show, catches you unaware. As you enter to find your seats, the actors are also gathering. They are stylishly costumed to post-War perfection, the women in long curled locks, fitted frocks and coordinated high heels; the men in suits, ties and vests. As they enter, the play is beginning.
First to arrive is pert blond, Lana Sherwood, the radio actress played by Shakespeare Company artistic director Sally Boyett. Dapper mustachioed Harry ‘Jazzbo’ Heywood (Nick DePinto) breezes in, along with Sally Applewhite (Teresa Spencer), just back from Hollywood; and the big name among them, Jake Laurents (Kevin Alan). As distinguished Franklin Delano Roosevelt-lookalike Freddie Filmore (Rob McQuay) rolls in in his wheelchair, the radio actors greet one another, doff and hang up coats, gather scripts and banter among themselves and with the audience.
“Have you ever seen a radio play,” we’re asked, and as most of us haven’t, we’re in for a treat as promised.
Stage manager David Johnson counts down to On Air, and the radio actors leap into character. Which could get deeply confusing had not voice and dialect coach Nancy Krebs trained the actors to distinguish each of the 10 or 12 roles three of them act.
Thus as radio actress Lana Sherwood, Boyett plays female roles from age six to 60, including George Bailey’s mother Rose and both of his daughters, Janie and Zuzu. DePinto’s dapper Jazzbo’s dozen roles include Charlie the angel, George’s brother Harry in youth and maturity and the Italian barkeep Martini. McQuay’s Freddie Filmore ranges from Announcer to the villainous Potter to taxi driver, bridge keeper and cop.
Spencer’s Sally Applewhite plays a single role, the winsome Mary Hatch Bailey. Alan’s Jake Laurents likewise plays only George, to whose long suffering he gives a whiney, exasperated edge.
As George dreams and defers … as Applewhite switches from loving Mary to Foley artist … the other three actors weave their voices into the three-dozen characters angelic and all too human whose lives intertwine with George’s to make A Wonderful Life. With them, you occupy three worlds at once — New York radio studio, Bedford Falls, New York and heaven. And you believe it all.
Which is why Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play gives you a wonderful hour and a half or so, plus a 15-minute intermission.
F 8pm, Sa 2pm & 8pm, Su 3pm, thru Jan. 3 except Christmas. Annapolis Shakespeare Company, 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., $25-$40, rsvp: annapolisshakespeare.org.