Next up for PlayMakers Repertory Company is It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Connecticut dramatist and playwriting teacher Joe Landry. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s professional-theater-in-residence will reenact the Christmas-Eve travails of troubled Bedford Falls building-and-loan executive George Bailey on Nov. 28-Dec. 2 and Dec. 4-9 and 11-16 in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art.
“It’s a Wonderful Life has become the American Christmas Carol, an inspirational tale that families share as an anticipated annual event,” said PlayMakers producing artistic director Joseph Haj in preshow publicity. Haj said, “We invite everyone to experience the true spirit of the season with this unique opportunity to see one of the classic screen’s most cherished gems come to life.”
In reviewing previous productions of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Mary Houlihan of the Chicago Sun-Times called the show “One of the best holiday shows around” and added, “This is a fresh and inventive way of reconnecting with a classic story of love and redemption.” Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune praised the “fresh theatrical context” of Joe Landry’s radio drama” and said it “creates just the right kind of retro warmth. If you cry every time you see the movie, you’ll be blubbering away right on cue…. Guaranteed.” Indeed, Kerry Reid of the Chicago Tribune declared that the play is “A well-loved tale told with style, charm and a heart so big it could burst the ribcage of the harshest Grinch.”
Joe Landry based his radio drama, which premiered in December 1996 in Stamford, CT, on the screenplay that director Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1945 story, “The Greatest Gift.” Capra’s 1946 film starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as his wife Mary, Henry Travers as George’s guardian angel Clarence Odbody, Thomas Mitchell as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy, and Lionel Barrymore as ruthless businessman Henry F. Potter, who hopes to use an inadvertent error by Uncle Billy to bankrupt the Baileys’ building and loan.
The PlayMakers Repertory Company cast for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play includes (in alphabetical order: Ray Dooley as Freddy Fillmore/Announcer, Brandon Garegnani as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood/Clarence Odbody, Katja Hill as Lana Sherwood/Violet, Todd Lawson as Jake Laurents/George Bailey, and Maren Searle as Sally Applewhite/Mary Bailey.
“I first heard about this play adaptation of the movie when Joe Haj brought it to my attention while we were at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival together last season,” recalls PRC guest director Nelson T. Eusebio, III. “I was familiar with the film, but had no idea that there was a theatrical adaptation of it.”
He adds, “I’ve never worked on a production of this play — I’ve never even directed a ‘holiday show’ before. So, when Joe sent me the script, I had to really focus on what I would bring to a holiday show. What came to me is that holiday shows are about the things I love best in the theater — coming together to celebrate humanity, despite all the obstacles we face — and that a huge part of what allows us to continue on is our belief and support in each other, our community.”
Eusebio confesses, “In today’s theatrical landscape, it’s always refreshing to come back to a play that is without irony, and is genuine. There is an elegant simplicity and sincerity to the story that is courageous in such a cynical time. That heart is what I like best about Wonderful Life.
“… [T]his play is that it’s not only iconic, but it’s an amazing story and huge theatrical challenge in terms of how to make it really sing,” claims Eusebio. “It is a story that is so resonant with our hard economic times and the challenge of the American everyman to make his dreams come true. I think we all have some George Bailey in us — we as Americans are dreamers, but sometimes we lose perspective on the things that give our life value. This story not only reminds us of who we are, but who we aspire to be.”
Nelson Eusebio notes, “In this adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, the play takes place within the framework of a 1940s live radio broadcast. Five actors come together on Christmas Eve to tell the classic tale of everyman George Bailey (Todd Lawson), a man who has given his entire life to the people of Bedford Falls, as he considers ending his life. His wife, Mary Hatch (Maren Searle), and the town pray for their friend George Bailey. Their prayers are answered in the form of the angel Clarence (Brandon Garegnani), who shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have looked like if he had never existed.
“What is slightly different about our production is that as the play progresses, we move further away from the radio broadcast convention, as the story (and Bedford Falls) begin to take over the radio station,” Eusebio explains.
In addition to director Nelson Eusebio and PlayMakers Repertory Company producing artistic director Joe Haj, the PRC creative team for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play includes assistant director Nathaniel P. Claridad, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer McKay Coble, costume designer Rachel Pollock, lighting designer Burke Brown, composer/musician Mark Lewis, sound designer/engineer Robert Dagit, voice coach John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Ashley Lucas, and stage managers Charles K. Bayang and Sarah Smiley.
Director Nelson Eusebio says, “[Set designer] McKay Coble has done an amazing job recreating a radio station in the 1940s that turns into the town of Bedford Falls. The set also includes a beautiful skyline of New York City, and a couple of surprises later on in the play.”
He adds, “Since we are constantly shifting between the world of the radio play and the world of Bedford Falls, the lighting design of Burke Brown becomes essential in telling the audience where we are….
“[Costume designer] Rachel Pollock has done a wonderful job making the cast look beautiful and helping to tell the story,” Eusebio points out. “All the costumes are true to the style of the 1940s, and because of the many characters that three of the actors have to play (Ray Dooley, Katja Hill, Brandon Garegnani) their costumes are flexible enough to suggest various townspeople of Bedford Falls.”
Eusebio admits, “Perhaps the biggest challenge [in staging It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play on the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre] concerns how much do we let the choices made in the movie affect our storytelling. There are certainly many famous tableaus in the film that we try to recreate in this stage adaptation, but we certainly do not want to force ourselves into a corner where we find ourselves trapped by the choices made by Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, and Donna Reed.
“The film exists not only as a real film, but in a place in the hearts and memory of our audience,” says Nelson Eusebio. “The challenge is to evoke a resonance with that memory and yet free them to imagine the story in a new and different way.
“For the cast,” Eusebio declares, “there is the huge challenge of these iconic performances and how people remember them. We are taking on that challenge by encouraging them to own the material — they are free to make choices not based on the film performance, but if they want to steal a thing or two from those performances, that’s totally fair game. I always mention to them that they shouldn’t be trying to do Jimmy Stewart, they should be doing George Bailey — and that will have a resonance with both the audience and their memory of Stewart’s performance.
“In terms of the design,” says Eusebio, “the big challenge is not creating a 1940s radio station and stars — the design team at PlayMakers is more than capable of handling that. No, it’s creating a 1940s radio station and performers that can transform into the world of Bedford Falls, and then transform again into the nightmare of Pottersville. They have done an amazing job of giving us flexible pieces — whether it’s a prop or a costume or a sign — that is both specific and transformative. That’s not an easy task, and they have supported this vision of the play in a way that is going to delight audiences….
“If you come expecting the movie,” claims PlayMakers guest director Nelson T. Eusebio, III, “you won’t be disappointed. If you come expecting a radio play, you will find that here — and a whole lot more. If you have never seen the movie and don’t know anything about it, then you should really come — this is a great story told in a highly fun and theatrical way that celebrates both our inner dreamer and our common bond of humanity.”
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: 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: http://chapelboro.com/topic/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=6124942.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28-30 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4-7, 2 and 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 http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets.
NOTE 1: There will be FREE post-performance discussions with the creative team on Dec. 5th and 9th.
NOTE 3: The UNC General Alumni Association will host a preshow reception and conversation with the artists at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7th. To reserve tickets, telephone 919-843-5115 or visit http://www.alumni.unc.edu/.
NOTE 4: The 2 p.m. Dec. 8th show will be an Open-Captioned Performance. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/opencaption.
NOTE 5: Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org — a tactile tour of the set.
NOTE 6: At 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 15th and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 16th, the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://ldf.org/), and N.C. Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/).will sponsor FREE post-show 50-minute “Mindplay” discussions led by Jeffrey Chambers, MD, who will ask “What Is a Wonderful Life?”
OTHER LINKS: “
The Greatest Gift” (the story): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_Gift_(story) (Wikipedia).
“The Greatest Gift” (e-text): http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi?action=show_story&story_id=132 (American Zoetrope: All-Story).
It’s a Wonderful Life (the film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/79566/It-s-a-Wonderful-Life/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It’s_a_Wonderful_Life (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038650/ (Internet Movie Database).
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (a sample from the script): http://www.playscripts.com/plays/itsawonderfullife.pdf (Playscripts, Inc.).
Joe Landry: http://www.joelandry.com/ (official website) and http://www.playscripts.com/author.php3?authorid=532 (Playscripts, Inc.).
Nelson T. Eusebio, III: http://www.nelsoneusebio.com/ (official website).
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