For most people, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a black-and-white holiday movie that pops up on TV to offer a glimpse into American life more than half a century ago. “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry from the 1947 Frank Capra classic, adds another layer — a look behind the scenes of a period radio performance of the story.
The Wheelock Family Theatre production that begins performances Friday makes the most of that play-within-a-play angle.
Under the direction of Wheelock producer Wendy Lement, five actors, three singers, a pianist, and two Foley artists bring to life the story of small-town banker George Bailey, whose attempts to be a good man have ended in despair. At this late date, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that on Christmas Eve, with the help of a sympathetic angel, George learns that his sacrifices have not been for nothing, and that he is the richest man in town in all the ways that matter.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY
Wheelock audiences won’t see the snowy streets of Capra’s fictional Bedford Falls, though. Instead they’ll be looking into a 1940s radio studio, complete with period costumes and microphones. The Wheelock actors play radio performers who in turn play the characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Acting with the voice alone is enough of a challenge, says actor Dan Bolton, who plays George. “It really does make you focus on the words and where the important idea in each word is,” he said.
Bolton credits Lement with helping him find his character arc, how George changes from scene to scene and from the beginning of the play to the end. “She’s been good at giving me guideposts as to, here’s where he’s sassy, here’s where he’s desperate, here’s where he’s right on the brink, and here’s where it all comes together for him.”
George can be a complicated guy, he says. “For instance, the scene where he watches Mary as an older librarian without George in her life, and her life is completely empty. It’s not necessarily that he feels bad for Mary, but he feels like he’s been a jerk, because he’s let the love of his life get away, and he’s let her life be empty because he wasn’t there.”
Bolton and Liz Hayes, who plays Mary Bailey, only have to play their own characters. But the other Wheelock actors — Barlow Adamson, Johnny Lee Davenport and Marina Re — play the rest of the inhabitants of Bedford Falls. Or more accurately, each “has an actor that they’re playing, who then is playing all of these different roles” on the radio, Lement says. And things can get really complicated when two of those roles end up in conversation. “It’s very fun. They’re actually having conversations with themselves and finding ways to make that clear and make it come alive.”
Lement and company have created nonverbal scenarios to give life to each of the radio performers, too.
“Like, one of the singers who’s young has a crush on one of the lead actors and runs over and gives him a Christmas gift,” Lement says. “And the woman he’s dating, who’s also one of the lead actors, sees that and gets angry. These are moments we’ve put in to try to create this as a world itself.”
Bolton says the radio cast reaches a little epiphany of its own by the end.
“There’s this great moment where the five of us look over to the Foley artists and the singers and almost take this collective sigh, like saying, ‘Wow, what a story we’ve told,’ ” Bolton says. “It’s actually one of my favorite moments in the show. They’re playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ behind it, but it’s not sappy or sentimental, it’s just very present and very real, and every time we get to that moment, I love it. We all put on this really good story, and we all lived the message that was in this story.”
There are at least two other productions of Landry’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the state this holiday season: through Dec. 29 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, where Landry will appear for a talkback after Sunday’s matinee (www.shake
speare.org), and at the Marblehead Little Theatre through Dec. 22 (www.mltlive
.com). It appears to be a holiday winner for theater companies.
So is this “Wonderful Life” the beginning of a new Wheelock holiday tradition?
“It could be,” says Lement. “We’ll actually save the set pieces in case we decide to do it again. And it might not be every year — but it might be. We’ll see what the response is.”
Dickens reading on tap
Another holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” is treated to a variety of productions every year. But seldom is it staged in a pub. On Dec. 22 at 12:30 p.m., actor Ken Cheeseman will read the original Charles Dickens classic aloud, voicing the characters, for a small audience at Terry O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, 45 Union St., Newton. This is the second year Cheeseman has done the performance as a benefit for Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre, where he was recently seen in “Race” and “Bakersfield Mist.” Tickets for the brunch performance are $25 ($10 for children under 15); call 617-923-8487 or go to newrep.org. Food and drink may be purchased separately.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.