Playwright: Joe Landry, adapted from the film by Frank Capra
American Theater Company,
1909 W. Byron
( 773 ) 929-1031; www.atcweb.org
Runs Through: Dec. 31
By Catey Sullivan
There are those of us for whom Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life always smacked of over-earnest, cloying, triumph-of-the-human-spirit sentimentalism. Life is brutal for everybody, George Bailey, get over yourself already.
But after taking in the American Theater Company's inventive, honest telling of the story as It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, we have to rethink our automatic gag-me-with-a-candy cane reaction to lines like 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings' and bad-seed cute characters with names like Zuzu.
Maybe it's James Leaming's genuinely moving anguish and bone-deep good-heartedness as George. Maybe it's foley artist Sean Okerberg, a deadpan sound effect wizard who is on full view as he evokes blizzards, sirens and women in stilettos in a tiny sound booth crammed with everyday objects. Or maybe it's Ashley Bishop, an actor with a movie star moniker and a knack for charming crowds with obscure Rosemary Clooney songs.
Whatever the case, director Marty Higginbotham's staging of the familiar story of a man who decides not to kill himself after all is simply splendid. The production radiates warmth and humor. There's not a whit of emotional manipulation about it—staged as a live radio play, It's A Wonderful Life takes on an honesty and a relevance that the 24/7 television airings of the movie can kill off by their relentless ubiquity.
With the radio station set-up, we don't see the fictional Bedford Falls ( a town name that never fails to make me think of Fall River ax murderer Lizzie Borden ) so much as we sense it.
Tom Burch's warmly elegant set is a 1940s radio station where convivial actors man old-fashioned silver microphones and tell the story against a backdrop of call letters ( WATC ) and seasonal garlands. Bishop and the dapper Ben Dicke duet through carols as the audience filters in, while the rest of the cast meanders about, radio scripts in hand, greeting each other with near palpable good will.
The story/broadcast is preceded by a truly amusing reminder about turning off phones ( 'What do you think this is, Buck Rogers?' ) , itself a small triumph of originality. The story plays out complete with hilarious, vintage-style commercials for real theater advertisers and station breaks during which actors read mostly anonymous 'jinglegrams' audience members have penned beforehand and dropped in a glittery basket. ( 'To the babe in the white mini-skirt and the pink sweater in left 3C—How can you be wearing a mini-skirt in this weather?' )
But the heart and soul of the production is George Bailey, and his awakening from utter despair to joy. 'Universal' is a tired, overused word, but I can't think of a better one to describe George's journey.
Along for every step is the marvelous John Mohrlein, who plays two very different roles. As Mr. Potter, the vile Sam Walton of his day, Mohrlein is as darkly twisted and feral as cobra trapped in a hatbox. As George's guardian angel Clarence, Mohrlein becomes the bumbling force of goodness who helps George see that life is a gift.
And when the bell finally rings for Clarence, it's hard to deny the exuberance in the air.