We tend to glamorize the live radio plays of the ’40s, when actors would record dramas and comedies in front of a large, captivated audience, scripts clutched in the performers’ hands, playing many different characters and pausing only to plug their sponsor. PURE’s It’s a Wonderful Life gives an idea of what it would really be like in a post-war recording studio, watching self-assured performers make a 90-minute audio version of the Frank Capra film.
This heartwarming holiday show is set in WBRF’s Studio A, Manhattan, New York. The PURE cast take the guise of fictional radio stars. Nat Jones is Freddie Fillmore, who kicks off proceedings with a twinkling grin. Rodney Lee Rogers is the dashing Jake Laurents. Equity actor Paul Garbarini is Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood.
As we’re introduced to these actors and their female co-stars, the mood is set. They stand beside old-fashioned microphones and music stands, with Christmas trimmings all around. Close by is a table filled with objects that are used to make sound effects — shoes for footsteps, a police whistle, and a great wood and paper contraption that is cranked to make the very effective sound of icy wind.
Apart from the adopted radio personae of the actors, there are no post-modern twists here, no behind-the-scenes farce, just a professional group presenting a radio play as if they do it all the time. The script follows the movie closely, so if you’ve seen the James Stewart-Donna Reed perennial you’ll know what’s coming. For the first hour, an angel called Clarence (Garbarini) follows the life story of small-town everyman George Bailey (Rogers). Bailey wants to leave town and become a big shot, but responsibility keeps holding him back. He takes over his father’s building and loan company, catches the eye of the man-hungry Violet Bick (Jan Gilbert), falls in love with Mary Hatch (Susan Kattwinkel), and starts a family. All the while he battles the local robber baron Mr. Potter (Jones).
Since the actors read from their scripts, a lot of the emotion is conveyed vocally. Audience members unfamiliar with the set-up may find themselves occasionally lost; this is because each actor plays many roles. Sometimes the technique works beautifully, as when Nat Jones argues with himself as Potter versus George’s dad. But among the 50 characters there are a few with indistinct voices. There’s one scene where Gilbert is playing a female character who could be Violet, George’s mom, or his sister-in-law — it takes a moment to figure it out. In other words the audience has to pay close attention to the constantly changing characterizations. One blink and you’ll miss a switch.
Storywise, the first hour is slow. This seems to be a script problem rather than a directorial one, with some wordy scenes between Clarence and his heavenly boss. Director Mark Landis does what he can to keep the pace up and make the sight of five actors reading scripts as visually interesting as possible, and David and Jeannie Joyner’s period costumes add to the feeling that you’re being transported to a more innocent era.
For PURE this staging and subject matter is a departure from their usual dark-edged, intense theatre productions. They’re inviting the audience to relax, be charmed, and reminded of what makes life wonderful. On the night we saw the play, they succeeded. After three curtain calls, people left with contented smiles on their faces, ready to stand up to a real-life Potter or two.