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Theater Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’

By Judd Hollander Created: December 18, 2012 Last Updated: December 18, 2012
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(L–R) Max Gordon Moore, Katie Fabel, Peter Maloney, and Rory Duffy in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Dec. 5-30. (Carol Rosegg)

(L–R) Max Gordon Moore, Katie Fabel, Peter Maloney, and Rory Duffy in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Dec. 5-30. (Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK—The Irish Repertory Theatre takes a trip back in time to 1946 with their presentation of the perennial Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” performed as a radio play. The work is winningly adapted from the film by Anthony E. Palermo.

Taking place in the studio of a 1940s radio station, six actors (Rory Duffy, Katie Fabel, Kristin Griffith, Ian Holcomb, Peter Maloney, and Max Gordon Moore) portray 25 characters in telling the story of George Bailey (Moore), a man beloved by all.

On this Christmas Eve of the aforementioned year, George Bailey is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge—that is, he will unless Clarence Oddbody (Maloney), a 200-year-old angel second-class, can stop him and earn his wings in the process.

George, it should be explained, is basically the nicest guy in the town of Bedford Falls, New York. He is a man who would give anyone the shirt off his back or an offer of a helping hand if needed.

Over the years he has saved several lives, his own brother among them, all at great personal cost to himself. He has had to sacrifice his dreams of going to college, seeing the world, and making something of his life, in order to run the Bailey Building and Loan Association.

The Building and Loan is just about the only business in town not owned by Mr. Potter (Maloney), a man far more concerned with the monetary value of things than the human factor.

George does find some happiness, such as in marrying the pretty Mary Hatch (Fabel) and raising a family, but he’s always haunted by what he believes he has missed in life.

When $8,000 of the Association’s money suddenly goes missing right before an audit, it’s the last straw for George, reducing him to despair. He is about to leap to his death, when Clarence appears.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” is a gentle morality tale about looking for happiness in your own backyard—not always over the next hill. It is also a rant against the heartless world of big business in favor of the little people.

The set by James Morgan does a great job in recreating this bygone era. The stage in the Irish Repertory’s downstairs W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre is completely transformed to resemble a radio studio, complete with an applause sign—this is a live radio play performed before an in-house audience after all.

Adding to the fun are the imaginative use of sound effects by the station’s special effects artist (Duffy), including a bowl of cornflakes used to simulate walking in the snow. Another nice touch is the inclusion of several period radio advertisements, such as Lucky Strike cigarettes, the choice of doctors everywhere.

More importantly, the actors are able to bring their various characters realistically to life, thus drawing the audience into the story. Moore does a wonderful job as George, an often unhappy man always wanting something just beyond his reach.

Maloney is enjoyable as Clarence, a genial, bumbling sort of fellow with an underlying air of authority, and Fabel projects the right amount of earnestness as George’s loyal wife, Mary, a woman with goals of her own.

It’s not long before one forgets the more familiar movie and sees this presentation as a completely stand-alone work, which indeed it is.

Other memorable portrayals include Holcomb as Uncle Billy, a sad-sack sort of fellow, and as Nick, a sometimes angry bartender, while Griffith does a fine job of crying on the radio as Janie, one of George and Mary’s children.

Charlotte Moore’s direction of the play is fine here, working with performers to give their different portrayals a bit of shading—including, as actors in the radio studio, one taking a drink from a flask and another arriving almost late for the performance—which all helps add to the atmosphere.

Other tech credits deserving of mention are Zachary Williamson’s sound design, which nicely brings across the different sounds from the radio broadcast, and the simple yet appealing costumes by David Toser.

Amiable, lovingly low-tech, and more than a bit nostalgic, this radio play version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” makes for an enjoyable and heartwarming production and a welcome addition to any holiday season.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Closes: Dec. 30

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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