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Wonderful Is the Word for “It’s a Wonderful Life”

The PRC cast of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" includes (from left) Ray Dooley, Brandon Garegnani, Maren Searle, Todd Lawson, and Katja Hill (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The PRC cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” includes (from left) Ray Dooley, Brandon Garegnani, Maren Searle, Todd Lawson, and Katja Hill (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Wonderful is the word for the current PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Connecticut playwright Joe Landry. PRC guest director Nelson T. Eusebio, III and his charismatic cast breathe new life into the familiar story about George Bailey’s Dark Night of the Soul, whose unforgettable characters flicker across television screens not only during the 1946 film’s annual airing in December, but pretty much year-round now.

Eusebio and scenic designer extraordinaire McKay Coble smoothly surmount the technical challenges of performing It’s a Wonderful Life in a radio-play format on the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre. The actors carry their scripts for a few scenes, dropping pages here and there and sometimes tossing away dozen of pages at a time for comic effect.

PlayMakers Rep patrons probably never realized that there was so much humor in Philip Van Doren Stern’s beloved 1945 fable about the improbable Christmas Eve miracle that rescues beleaguered Bedford Falls, NY business executive George Bailey, who is standing on an icy bridge about to take his own life rather than subject his family to the humiliation of seeing him arrested and imprisoned, because a bank examiner has found a shortage of funds at Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.

But it is George’s newly appointed guardian angel, one Clarence Odbody, angel second class, who ultimately takes the plunge into the freezing river — and forces George to rescue him! Then when George says that he wishes that he had never been born, Clarence employs his heavenly hocus-pocus to show what a bleak world that would be.

Todd Lawson plays George Bailey with panache, and Brandon Garegnani is a stitch as Clarence Odbody. Maren Searle is sweet but strong as George’s wife, the former Mary Hatch; and Katja Hill adds memorable moments as Violet, a down-on-her-luck girl trying to keep from going bad, and various other characters, including tiny Zuzu Bailey.

PlayMakers Rep crowd favorite Ray Dooley serves as the show’s narrator — announcer Freddy Fillmore — but quickly steps into the action as George’s befuddled Uncle Billy, who precipitates the latest crisis at the family-run building and loan by misplacing $8,000 on Christmas Eve. Dooley also plays Mr. Gower, the grieving druggist who makes a near-fatal mistake when he dispenses poison instead of the pertinent prescription drug; but he makes the most indelible impression in his role as George Bailey’s arch-nemesis, greedy vulture capitalist Henry F. Potter.

Costume designer Rachel Pollock’s 1940s fashions and composer/musician Mark Lewis’ onstage piano playing also help create a heady radio-drama atmosphere for George Bailey’s change of heart. They combine with Nelson Eusebio’s snappy staging and virtuoso performances by the five-member cast as they effortlessly switch from role to role to role, imbuing each of their characters with distinctive personalities, accents, postures, etc., that make them instantly recognizable in this wonderfully warm and winning production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.

EDITOR’S NOTE: PlayMakers Rep’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is dedicated to the legacy of local civic and philanthropic leader Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans (1920-2012), who served as a trustee and the first female chair of The Duke Endowment and a trustee of Duke University.

SECOND OPINION: Dec. 5th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall:; Dec. 5th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Kate Dobbs Ariail (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): and Nov. 28th Durham, NC mini-preview by Byron Woods:; Dec. 4th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC 91.5/North Carolina Public Radio interview with director Nelson T. Eusebiom III and actors Ray Dooley, Brandon Garegnani, Katja Hill, Todd Lawson, and Maren Searle, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”:; Dec. 3rd Raleigh, NC Raleigh review by Larissa Mount: and Nov. 30th preview by the BWW News Desk:; Dec. 3rd Chapel Hill, NC Chapel Hill Magazine review by Andrea Griffith Cash:’s-a-wonderful-production/; Dec. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks:; Dec. 2nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Katelyn Trela: and Nov. 30th preview by Carson Blackwelder:; Nov. 29th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan:–Actor-portrays-iconic-role-in-‘It’s-a-Wonderful-Life–A-Radio-Play’? (Note 1: You must register to read this article); and Nov. 16th Chapel Hill, NC WCHL/97.9 FM radio interview with radio interview with director Nelson T. Eusebio, III and actors Todd Lawson and Katja Hill, conducted by D.G. Martin: (Note 2: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Nov. 27th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8, 2 p.m. Dec. 9, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11-15, and 2 p.m. Dec. 16 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $20-$50, except $10 UNC students, $12 all other students, and $15 general admission on Tuesdays (Community Night).

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311,, or







NOTE 1: There will be a FREE post-performance discussion with the creative team on Dec. 9th.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. ( of Raleigh will audio-describe an All-Access Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11th, which will also feature sign-language interpretation and Large-Print and Braille programs and — if requested in advance by e-mail to — a tactile tour of the set.

NOTE 3: There will be a Student Matinee — at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 12th. For details, click To reserve tickets, click

NOTE 4: At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 15th and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 16th, the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (, the Lucy Daniels Foundation (, and N.C. Psychoanalytic Society ( sponsor FREE post-show 50-minute “Mindplay” discussions led by Jeffrey Chambers, MD, who will ask “What Is a Wonderful Life?”


The Greatest Gift” (the story): (Wikipedia).

The Greatest Gift” (e-text): (American Zoetrope: All-Story).

It’s a Wonderful Life (the film): (Turner Classic Movies),’s_a_Wonderful_Life (Wikipedia), and (Internet Movie Database).

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (the play): (Playscripts, Inc.) and (Joe Landry’s website).

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (a sample from the script): (Playscripts, Inc.).

Joe Landry: (official website) and (Playscripts, Inc.).

Nelson T. Eusebio, III: (official website).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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