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‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and a wonderful night when ATC revisits ‘radio’ parable of faith

Submitted by on Dec 19, 2011 – 4:02 pm

Review: “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” adapted from Frank Capra’s screen play, at American Theater Company through Dec. 30. ****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

No matter how many times you return to “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play,” it’s impossible not to see and hear Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the man who sees his life’s dream slip away and then must endure a calamity that pushes him to the brink on Christmas Eve. It was Stewart who immortalized George in Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” with one of those instantly defining performances that seems to meld actor and character in our minds forever.

All this is by way of coming round to American Theater Company’s 10th anniversary renewal of “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play” and the charming – as well as painfully convincing – performance by Christopher McLinden as George. In every respect of intensity, pacing, inflection and ironic tone, McLinden’s personification echoes Stewart’s. And I say that not in a pejorative way. I suppose one could construe McLinden’s reading as a tribute to the great film actor, but I took it in as a completely engaging and sympathetic portrait of a good man overwhelmed by twists of fate.

More about that, but first a public service announcement: This adaption of the film is brought to you by WATC in a 1940s studio setting complete with an announcer (Chris Amos), a sign that illuminates to signal applause, a Foley artist (Rick Kubes) to provide sound effects and – for absolute authenticity — commercial breaks on behalf of sponsors of the current show who may or may not have existed in 1940. But never mind that. Most of the actors read multiple parts, and as it is effectively a play within a play, occasionally the “radio” cast follows through on action – one enthusiastic kiss, for example – that would be left to the “listener’s” imagination. In short, it’s great fun.

But what’s so terrific about the work of director Jason W. Gerace and his company is the seriousness and dramatic nuance they bring to their telling of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This isn’t a spoof but a genuine enactment of events streaking headlong toward a very bad end, the destruction of a man’s life.

Unfortunately for George, at the outset a young man with ambitions that soar far beyond the small town where his father has struggled to sustain a building and loan association, his life is hounded by a rich, Scrooge-like character who owns most of the town. And that cynical, grasping nemesis called Mr. Potter might actually succeed in driving George to his doom were it not for a guardian angel named Clarence. How ironic – and delightful for the ATC audience – that ornery Potter and empathic Clarence are both voiced by the marvelously versatile Mike Nussbaum. It’s quite touching to watch, not just hear, Nussbaum transform from the surly, avaricious Potter bent on having the only property he doesn’t own into benign Clarence, who gives his all to help George in hope of gaining his own prize: wings.

Still, the center of this parable about goodness, faith and the value of one’s life is George, and McLinden articulates his life with a passion and humor that give place to nihilistic despair. It is a remarkable thing, indeed the essence of theater, to watch an actor playing an actor playing a role – on the radio! – and sense the full depth and complex humanity of that character. We really do forget we’re peering through a double lens. This is George, in his flesh and warmth and crisis.

The supporting cast is spot-on as well, notably Phillip Earl Johnson as both George’s hard-working father and the fatally forgetful Uncle Billy and Mary Wynn  Heider as the love of George’s life (see aforementioned kiss). Designer Tom Burch’s studio set has an aura of authenticity in its compactness and detail. Oh, I nearly forgot: For those who applaud vigorously when the signal light illuminates, cookies and milk await after the show.

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Photos and credits: Home page and top: The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life, the Radio Play.” Top left: Christopher McLinden as George Bailey; lower left: Mike Nussbaum doubles as the grasping Mr. Potter and George’s guardian angel Clarence. (Photos by Elissa Shortridge)

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