From the moment one enters the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theater, one’s spirits lift. First, we see the festive reds and greens and glittering decorations. Delightfully arranged to appear like a radio studio in the 1940s and a pleasant reminder of the season’s best, the set relaxes us. The accoutrements and furniture showcase the beginning of the time of peace after WWII. Immediately, we understand. The Irish Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the iconic It’s a Wonderful Life will be a noteworthy affirmation of the Christmas classic.
The background music that plays as we enter the theater mirrors the sparkling set design. We hear the iconic voices of celebrity singers caroling Christmas favorites. (Somehow we don’t miss “All I Want for Christmas is You.”) As we listen to the music, we reflect on the framed black-and-white head shots that populate the studio’s walls. These Hollywood celebrities (i.e. Errol Flynn, Doris Day, Katherine Hepburn), are giants of cinema. Gorgeous and glamorous in their youth, such stars encourage the actors and audience to hope and thrill. Thus massaged, we filter our senses and float into Christmas Eve 1946 in Bedford Falls, ready for a story we know well.
In no way could we be disappointed by this wonderful live radio-play version of the Frank Capra film. Adapted by Anthony E. Palermo in a homey style, it runs just over an hour. Philip Van Doren Stern wrote the original story that Capra morphed into his timeless movie. In director Charlotte Moore’s hands, the themes and story soar as the cast pulls out all the stops and sink their teeth into the well-known characterizations. Of these, the Baileys of Bedford Falls, hero Clarence the angel, and villainous Mr. Potter shine most brightly.
Strong performances by Dewey Caddell, Ian Holcomb, and Orlagh Cassidy in a multitude of flavorful small-town portrayals replete with accents and hat changes entertain. Rory Duffy’s expert skill with sound effects amazes. Every now and then I found myself mesmerized by the sounds he created – basic but evocative ones like a siren, walking on gravel and on concrete, wind, a phone, a doorbell, doors opening and shutting.
Indeed, these sound effects become a cheerful character unto themselves. And Duffy’s enthusiasm for creating them spill into his character portrayals. In total he acts six other Bedford Falls characters, young and middle aged. As he finishes with a portrayal, he seamlessly works back into crunching gravel or slamming doors. He doesn’t drop a beat. Impressive.
Watching and hearing this live radio presentation, we process a confluence of the past (1940s) and present (2017). The two run simultaneously, a visual and aural parallel which adds to the fun. I felt strangely part of an absurdist time warp as observer and participant. My audience role allowed me to consider circumstances as they were in the 1940s while comparing them to the present. The live radio format encourages the audience to integrate the time periods.
For example, as the Announcer (Ian Holcomb) begins the presentation and energizes its interactivity, we become involved in two shows. One is a live radio play from the 1940s. The other is the Irish Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the live radio play It’s a Wonderful Life. As interactive participants, we follow the Applause signs above the stage. Duffy also encourages us to applaud louder and then to stop. As we experience in the present this feature of the past we think back to a time of simplicity and innocence. Back in the day such live radio shows delivered good will by the bushel.
Aaron Gaines as George Bailey has the “gee gosh” Jimmy Stewart quality without making his characterization syrupy sweet or too Stewartesque. He remains himself and projects the kindhearted goodness of George perfectly. And Haley Bond as Mary Hatch Bailey portrays George’s wife with a modern feel.
In the adaptation none of the gender issues of paternalism evidence themselves. In fact Palermo has done fine work transferring the meat of the themes and the arc of the plot into a poignant comedy-drama that carries great meaning for the season. This is especially so considering that suicide rates go up during the holidays. And it is friendships which truly make us rich. These messages we need to recognize more than ever as cupidity seems to trump good will (think of the impending tax legislation, for example).
From the costumes (nylons with seams, etc.) to the radio advertisements (i.e. Lucky Strike) the era emerges. Nostalgia reigns as we take in these artifacts. Simultaneously, we recognize how the past evolved into the present. This carry-through of history becomes an intriguing theme. Importantly, the revelation occurs especially during the advertisement breaks. For example, in one advertisement for Lucky Strikes, doctors encourage smoking to bring refreshment to one’s lungs, and then ad copy references how Humphrey Bogart smokes Lucky Strikes and thus we should too.
Rich ironies abound. One cannot help but remember that Bogart died of lung cancer from cigarette smoking. It took five decades for individuals to understand the dangers of smoking and to lobby for its banning everywhere. Ironically, the Announcer chides us to not strike matches loudly if we wish to smoke in the theater. Quelling noise, not quelling secondhand smoke, is paramount. Could Americans have been so naïve? Once upon a time we believed corporations’ intentions were honorable.
Not only is It’s a Wonderful Life one of the most-watched films of the Christmas season even today, the message it delivers speaks a verity that becomes irrevocable for all of us. From the time the radio personalities enter the stage, take off their coats, and ready themselves to engage us in their “live radio play,” we straddle the time warp willingly. And we happily agree to applaud during the segment breaks as we pause for the hysterical, ironic advertisements.
Moore and the cast and crew honor It’s a Wonderful Life in this joyful commemoration, and what a sterling message to venerate. In a time when political nihilists wish to convince us otherwise, Moore’s, Palermo’s and the casts’ efforts remind us of how much we matter. Lives saved, networks of friendships, families – these matter. Significantly, the presentation focuses on the positive. Dysfunction may loom large on the horizon, but so does goodness, decency, kindness, wholesomeness. For these messages alone, this production is a must-see. And though we might not be able to materially see him, Clarence’s presence, even if the fantastic moments he brings are only reinforced with the tinkling of a bell.
It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd Street between 7th and 6th) runs about one hour with no intermission. The production schedule concludes on 31 December. But like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we would enjoy it in July.