With weeks to go until Thanksgiving, it seemed a little early to be group- singing “Deck the Halls,” but giving thanks is exactly the message of It’s a Wonderful Life, the sweet comic drama that just opened at the Walnut’s Independence Studio. And to my amazement, half the audience young —and old alike—was mopping their eyes at the final scene.
Adapted by Joe Landy from the classic 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, the show’s subtitle is key: we are watching a cast of five actors perform the script, while we are cast as a radio audience.
As the APPLAUSE light flashes, and we listen to commercials (“Use Ajax, the foaming cleanser…”) we get to see how sound effects are created: someone in the story walks out angry, and we see an actor tap two shoes together and then slam a little wooden box’s door. The Foley effects here are less remarkable than they might be (Foley invented the effects of making “the eye see what the ear hears”), but there’s lots of equipment on stage for us to watch and it keeps us interested in the throwback art form of radio storytelling.
The well-worn plot centers on George Bailey (Damon Bonetti) whose dreams are dashed when a crisis forces him to take over the family business—a little mortgage company standing firm against the greedy bully, the evil Mr. Potter. Wishing he’d never been born, George’s endless bad luck drives him, eventually, to attempt suicide, but he’s rescued at the last minute by an angel (the excellent Michael P. Toner). The angel shows him how meaningful and valuable his life had been, and all the people who would have suffered had he not lived.
Under Jesse Bernstein’s direction, the rest of the cast (Tabitha J. Allen, Jessica Johnson—a standout–and Josh Totora) plays multiple roles in multiple voices and accents, while playing various instruments under Totora’s musical direction.
The layer lacking in the umbrella play is that there is no umbrella play: there are no personalities, no relationships between the radio cast members. Why are these people so dressed up? Going somewhere after? We’re told it’s Christmas Eve, 1946 in a studio in New York. Are they strangers? Are they friends? Romantically involved? Ambitious? Jealous? Sad? Happy? Are they, too, wishing they’d never been born? The device of a “live radio play” offers so much more dramatic possibility than merely watching actors read their parts from hand-held scripts and rattle newspapers.
But if you’re in the mood for a misty-eyed, life-affirming moment, It’s a Wonderful Life is the show for you.
[Walnut St. Theatre, Independence Studio, 9th & Walnut streets] October 31-December.17, 2017; walnutstreettheatre.org