Donna Feore played a trick on me. Yes, she did. She pulled the rug right out from under me the other night. I was all ready to be underwhelmed by the conceit of ItÕs a Wonderful Life portrayed on stage as a 1940s radio drama and then she just suckered me in. Perhaps it was because I had to sit through a bum-numbing, execrable adaptation of White Christmas (with re-worked book by David Ives and Paul Blake) last year at about this time presented by the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto (and reviewed here in Aisle Say). I donÕt know, but what Feore did with ItÕs a Wonderful Life was Š well, it was just wonderful.
Not having read the script beforehand, itÕs hard to tell how much of the character development was clearly delineated by stage directions in Philip GrecianÕs script (first staged in 2003) -- or how much was invented by the very inventive director/choreographer who surrounded herself with an equally skilled ensemble of actor/singer/dancers, a number of whom came from the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, but it all came together beautifully.
The first part of the ruse is the one-by-one entrance of the 12 radio players as they squeeze their way into the small studio space of station WLGB, cleverly designed (along with the period costumes) by Michael Gianfrancesco. Sandwiched between a piano at one end and sound effects area at the other, the actors are quick to grab a chair, stake out a portion of the sofa and otherwise claim their space before going to air.
Juan Chioran (as the fictional radio actor Tyrone Dixon) enters jauntily smoking a cigarette and casting an ego wider than a shadow on a sunny afternoon. He is followed by the modest studio pianist, Pearl Lowe (played appropriately enough by composer/librettist Leslie Arden), the mincing Vivian Ross (Diana Cofini), the bored leading man, Harvey Davis (played by Mike Shara) and hey, wait a minute here! Just as quick as you can say six characters in search of an author, you realize that those charactersÕ names that are listed in the program donÕt mean a thing. As soon as the Ņradio dramaÓ kicks off we begin to realize that the characters are really the multiple roles that the actors are now taking on which, in all, encompasses 63 speaking parts. So the cleverness starts with Ņactors playing actorsÓ in this play-within-a-play taken from a popular film that we are playing in our minds as we watch the play.
Act 1, as it works out, is just the warm up. By design, the actors give a lackluster performance. They do all the bad things that bad actors often do. They are bored by the project and so they liven it up with petty upstaging, breaking up when they ought to be serious, hoking up a Charleston number while a couple of them quickly step outside to smoke a cigarette as soon as they are off microphone, etc. By intermission I felt the joke was starting to wear thin. It was meant to.
As we move into the second act of the radio drama, we enter the dystopia of Potterville and the mood of the actors change. Yes, there is still all the business of quickly switching character voices, manipulating the sound effects (ably designed and executed on stage by John Gzowski) Š but there is something sinister beginning to take hold. Maybe itÕs the reality of an economic meltdown that had audience members tittering nervously when Mike Shara as George Bailey tries to stem a run on his Savings and Loan by attempting to explain the materialist conception of history and the predatory nature of monetarist fiscal policy to Tom, Joe and Charlie: ŅYouÕre thinking of this place all wrong Éthe moneyÕs not here.Ó Perhaps itÕs the gentle reminders from Clarence (Patrick McKenna -- who also plays the absent minded Uncle Billy) that we must not lose faith in the face of adversity. The actors arenÕt messing around anymore Š- this is serious business.
When ItÕs a Wonderful Life premiered as a film on December 20, 1946, with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore in the leading roles, it received a number of adverse reviews and was generally considered less than a success. Frank CapraÕs reputation as a director was diminished as a result of the filmÕs box office failure. Nonetheless, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed never lost faith with the story and continued to appear in radio adaptations for three years following the filmÕs release.
Maybe it was the hangover still hovering from the recent U.S. election that had whole communities so euphoric in their yes-we-can belief that they too could pull together just like the folks in Bedford Falls and overcome hardship and adversity in tough times.
Or maybe it was that artful conjuror, Donna
Feore with her
emotional legerdemain that resurrected an old story and -Š just like
George Bailey -- made it live again.