It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

PlayMakers Rep
Through Dec. 16

The onslaught of holiday plays and concerts is upon us, and the roster includes many regular favorites (or yawners, depending), but this year PlayMakers Repertory Company offers an old favorite in a charming new guise. It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1947 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, for all its many merits and despite its condemnation of capitalist greed, is awash in sentimentality. This adaptation by Joe Landry is not. Sure, there’s some, but just a dusting atop a layer cake of real feeling. I went in expecting to be entertained and came away nourished.

Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play segues smoothly from the introductory “radio play” section with the five actors “reading” the many parts behind microphones, into a very active stage play in which the actors convert the few chairs and props into whatever’s needed. Along with composer/ musician Mark Lewis on piano, the cast also provides sound effects. Seeing how they make them in no way lessens their impact, even while the sight reminds us of the artfulness of what we experience. The play and this particular staging are unusually effective at exposing the artifice underpinning the theatrical experience without diminishing its magic.

McKay Coble’s wonderful set for WPRC/ Bedford Falls is as much a character as any other, and Burke Brown’s lighting brings its many aspects to life. Todd Lawson, making his first PlayMakers appearance, is very moving as George Bailey, while MFA students Brandon Garegnani and Maren Searle give delightful performances as the angel Clarence and the lovely Mary Bailey, respectively. Durham actress Katja Hill shows her impressive range in several parts, from the child ZuZu to the vamping Violet. Ray Dooley also takes on many roles, including the mean old Mr. Potter, but as the radio announcer, he’s bright as brilliantine. This show’s highly recommended if you need to recharge your belief that yes, in spite of everything, it is a wonderful life.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”