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A ‘Wonderful Life’ Hits Home

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

The woman sitting by the hearth looked so calm and comfortable, so part of the scenery, I wondered whether she was a volunteer who’d been stationed there deliberately.

Before the start of Shakespeare & Company’s thoroughly entertaining production of the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life re-imagined as 1940’s-era live radio play, an immersive vibe had already been created in the lobby of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. Cast members David Joseph and Ryan Winkles, nattily costumed in sharp suits, gladhanded members of the arriving crowd, welcoming theatregoers to that evening’s “broadcast.” (Joseph and Winkles, with Jon Croy in-between, are seen above in Enrico Spada’s photo.)

And set designers had created a hearthside milieu just outside the theatre doors, complete with gaudily decorated Christmas tree, mock fireplace, old-fashioned radio playing period news broadcasts—and that unidentified woman with a blanket lain across her lap, seated in a comfortable chair next to an end table that held a plate of cookies and a glass of milk.

As with S&Co.’s similarly themed treatment of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds a few years ago, the show itself happens in a frame within a frame. As audience members take their seats, the cast flits casually around the playing space, which is outfitted by set designer Patrick Brennan to evoke a CBS radio studio on Christmas Eve, 1947. Simulated announcements by stage manager Hope Rose Kelly inform the ensemble when they’re due to go “live” over the air. As the announcer, straight-man extraordinaire Jon Croy stands behind a microphone and leads the audience through a lesson with the glowing “applause” sign. And after ten minutes of warm-up, S&Co.’s five cast members (including Sarah Jeanette Taylor and Jennie M. Jadow, seen at right), in their roles as vintage radio personalities, begin an adaptation of the Frank Capra film complete with on-stage sound effects (a miniature door being opened and closed, a bag of glass being shaken) and a few pauses to perform holiday songs and product jingles. (If you’re looking for a good hair tonic, I can now recommend one.)

Once things get going, the actors—working under director Jenna Ware—maintain a somewhat affected air. They’re not aiming for naturalism here; nor are they cheating with an ironic, winking approach, which they no doubt could have employed to mine additional laughs at the expense of the audience’s emotional connection. As a radio star portraying hero George Bailey, Joseph stays clear of the tics of James Stewart’s all-too-familiar performance, but still hugs its contours. He speaks in a cadence that’s familiar to us from our lingering impressions of 1940’s mass media, but not ranging into cliché.

Ironically, it turns out we really need that inch of distance to get truly close to the story. This adaptation by playwright Joe Landry adheres closely to Frank Capra’s 1946 film. The tale, of course, is a celebration and sentimentalization of small-town American life. At the time of the film’s original release, its bittersweet sense that our culture was losing something in its march toward big banks and big business—something both ineffable and foundational, mysterious as it was vital—must have been more prescient than it was rueful.

It’s a powerful memory. Surely it’s a wistfulness for the fuzzy idyll of caring neighbors and Christian charity evoked by the film that motivated an anonymous bidder (rumored to be George Lucas) to shell out $46 million this month for Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” a depiction of an elderly woman and her young companion bowing their heads in prayer amid a diner crowded with seemingly perplexed but respectful observers. And it’s the same thing some Berkshire visitors are looking for in something like the annual Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas event, when that town almost literally attempts to go back in time, if only for a few hours.

Capra’s story of a fledgling guardian angel (played winningly by company favorite Winkles, left, among his several other roles) showing a troubled man just how important he is to his friends and neighbors might seem like a tough sell in the age of irony. But much of It’s A Wonderful Life is achingly familiar. A big bank is gobbling up the smaller ones, headed by a cruel plutocrat to whom profits are paramount and people seem invisible. The hated Mr. Potter, a slumlord and monopolist, is happiest when readying to evict a family from its home or bribing a government regulator. “There’s nothing quite so loathsome as a family business,” Croy sneers as Potter, immediately identifying the character as an enemy of the Berkshires.

Yet this is Capra, not Eisenstein. The politics are sleeve-tugging rather than radical. There’s no call to reform the system that makes all this possible and, indeed, encourages it—instead there’s the sense that the tendencies of the market are ably checked, in the end, if there’s at least one little guy still out there, heroically offering an alternative to a few peers on a limited scale. (A public option that tames its much bigger competitors, if you will.) The sight of Bailey’s neighbors turning up to empty their pockets on his behalf goes straight for the heart, but the whole point is that they can’t afford to bankroll the Bailey Savings and Loan—George is bailed out by a telegram from a generous, factory-owning friend.

But that gesture isn’t just pure noblesse oblige (or guilt for refusing to re-purpose a defunct factory in hometown Lee—I mean Bedford Falls—as Bailey suggests he do, earlier). It’s payback to a good man for being a valuable neighbor and friend. And that’s ultimately the point, as suggested by Capra and co-screenwriters Frances Goodrich, Albert Hacket, and Joe Swerling.  It’s something we can perhaps relate to in the Berkshires, whether we pass familiar faces each day while walking down Main Street, or hover on the edges for a periodic taste of unselfconscious living as a needed corollary to urban existence.

Thoroughly charmed by the play—particularly the second half, when Bailey’s supernatural vision and triumphant resurrection are vividly rendered by the multi-talented cast—I stepped back into the lobby afterwards, and took a seat by that hearth. There may not have been any genuinely crackling logs there, but I put the blanket across my lap to get in the spirit.

If the vision of a small town where people actually know (and perhaps even care) about each other was merely a nostalgic illusion, It’s A Wonderful Life (both the film and S&Co’.s play) would be charming but inert, a streetscape of vintage cars that’s fit for photographs but merely a veneer. Instead, it felt familiar—the neighborliness and genuine human connections, as well as the struggle faced by local businesses and the epic importance of keeping a decent roof above-head. (Let’s not forget, the Bailey family fashions its dream house from a real fixer-upper—an abandoned property.)

Two nights after I saw the play, I walked from my Great Barrington apartment to a restaurant where the owner approached our table to make sure we knew the chorizo on the menu that night was fashioned from a pig he raised personally. 

I didn’t find Zuzu’s petals in my pocket, but I sure felt right at home.

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Through December 29
Tickets: $15-$50

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 12/17/13 at 10:14 AM • Permalink