By BOB FELDHEIM
Most everybody has seen the classic 1946 Frank Capra film, with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey; Donna Reed as his long-suffering wife Mary; Lionel Barrymore as money-grubbing buzzard Henry Potter; Thomas Mitchell as weepy Uncle Billy and Henry Travis as 293-year-old Clarence the Guardian Angel (2nd Class) who saves George’s life on Christmas eve.
So is there a compelling reason to be part of the Pioneer Barn audience this weekend for the A Classic Theatre production of “It’s A Wonderful Life” – A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry?
There are many reasons. You’re in for a barrel of unexpected fun and excitement. Directed by Jean Rahner, it’s a nostalgic blend of holiday cheer and theatrical magic conveyed by a realistic, simulated radio broadcast, resurrecting an era in American entertainment when “Radio was King.”
The stage is set. It’s Christmas Eve 1946, time for “Playhouse of the Air” broadcast from radio studio WBFR in Manhattan. Up front are three professional broadcast microphones, on stands, lengths of power cable snaking across the floor. High on the background wall are ON AIR and APPLAUSE backlighted signs. Also a large sound effects table loaded with all sorts of contraptions – a door for slamming, taxi car horn, wind generator, hammer, bucket, wooden block, shoes, gravel path – beneath a suspended fourth microphone. Sound effects are produced right before your eyes just as they were before the digital age.
There’s also a row of chairs for the cast to return to or jump up from when it’s time to rejoin the action, portraying the impressive gaggle of Bedford Falls characters – 53 in all, would you believe?
Veteran actor Christopher Wilson, returning to St. Augustine after many years away, is George Bailey, struggling all his adult life to save “that measly, one-horse S&L” (as well as Bedford Falls, his hometown). He’s given a great gift: the chance to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.
Longtime St. Augustine stage favorite Mike BonDurant does more than double-duty, as the announcer, alternating with Henry Potter “the richest and meanest man in town” driven to ruining George Bailey and taking over the S&L (and the town).
I was privileged to sit in on the 17th rehearsal (you read that right), with several more scheduled, to get it exactly right. This production is unbelievably challenging for the director and cast, and for the audience. Remember, it’s radio – meant for the ears, not the eyes. But if you’re in the audience, you can’t help watching. Your challenge is to continually keep in mind that the person at the microphone at any moment may not necessarily be playing the same character he was a few moments before. Listen. Let your ears make the IDs for you.
What an inspiring, heartwarming way to kick off the holiday season!
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.