Theater : "A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" at PAC
File photo by Ralph Stewart
In wonderful serendipity, George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence will be at the Performing Arts Center (PAC) this weekend in time to summon holiday sentiments and distract us from pontificating politicians, reality television, and the barrage of popular culture. For at least two hours, life — although still fraught — will be gentler, and basic values more discernible.
The Vineyard Playhouse production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" opens Saturday for a two-performance run. It is the third year that Artistic Director MJ Bruder Munafo has brought Philip Grecian's faithful version of Frank Capra's classic 1946 film to Island audiences.
Ms. Munafo refers to the play as "a heartwarming classic," and says, "It's really fun to watch. The audience has their favorite lines memorized and everyone in the cast is involved in creating the environment. Nothing is compromised. It's good old fashioned radio theater."
There are old-fashioned commercial jingles, written by musical director Wes Nagy and Rob Myers, cleverly touting Island businesses. The actors take turns reading from their scripts in front of the 1940s-style microphones.
Christopher Kann, in his third outing as George Bailey, describes the film role originated by James Stewart, saying, "It wouldn't do justice to the play to try and imitate him."
An Island native, Mr. Kann relates to his small town Bedford Falls character, explaining that although the cast reads from scripts, "It's not as if our noses are in the books. I use the script as a guide, a prop, and every time I do it I find lines that are different. You have to use more energy and imagination. Someone enters a room and you have to have that experience without it really having happened…But what's really important is the energy and rhythm. You have to trust in the play and keep its fast pace."
As the audience watches, Jim Novack, with support from Paul Munafo and Jihan Ponti, produces an almost orchestral series of sound effects — doors, bells, footsteps, phones, sirens, rain, howling wind, thunder, ice breaking.
Listening to Mr. Novack, who has a garage cabinet filled with devices, found objects, and antiques used for the purpose, his expertise and creative experience in creating sound effects becomes impressive.
"We keep finding new ways of doing things," he says, describing how he duplicates the sound of a stone breaking a glass window by throwing a marble against a piece of glass slanted inside a plastic bin, the sound of wind by cranking a hand-built wooden wheel against canvas, using cellophane to produce the sound of rain, and the ringing of an old crank-up phone by using a ring current of 70 volts and 20 cycles.
"I didn't realize we'd be the center of attention, but people have been fascinated," he says. "People can close their eyes and visualize what's happening. We're creating a mind picture — a sound scape."
Among the cast, two have stellar credentials as radio personalities. Arnold Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, have gained celebrity as members of the popular NPR show, "Says You," a witty and literate panel show recorded before live audiences.
Mr. Reisman, a declared fan of the Capra movie ("I still break into tears at the end") takes the part of Clarence, the errant angel who has spent 200 years trying to earn his wings.
He says, "I look forward to this…It's like a breath of fresh air — idealism, innocence, and what we're supposed to be about."
The play tells the story of George Bailey (Christopher Kann), quiet champion of Bedford Falls, whose good deeds impact the lives of the townspeople. George, married to his boyhood sweetheart Mary (Chelsea McCarthy), runs his father's loan company and tries to prevent the greedy tyrant Mr. Potter (Don Lyons) from taking over the entire town. But when Uncle Billy (Christopher Roberts) misplaces the loan company funds, George faces financial ruin and jail. Desperate to the point of suicide, George, standing on the Bedford Falls bridge, meets his guardian angel, Clarence, who in a series of flashbacks, shows George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
And at one point the announcer (Leslie Stark) says, "George had big dreams. But also big responsibilities. Of course, sometimes the two don't exactly fit together. Sometimes happiness is not over the rainbow, but right under your nose."
Mr. Reisman — who says he's undaunted by performing at PAC because, "'Says You' changed my life. I've become fearless" — says he and Ms. Lyons moved to the Island eight months ago after living seasonally in Menemsha because it has the same qualities as the fictional Bedford Falls of the play. "It shows who we should all be. The good guy is there and he represents who we were. It hits a chord." He adds, "The Island has the strongest sense of community we've ever lived in."
"It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play," presented by The Vineyard Playhouse, directed by MJ Bruder Munafo. Saturday, Dec. 17, 8 pm; matinée Sunday, Dec. 18, 1 pm. $20; $15 seniors. M.V. Performing Arts Center, M.V. Regional High School, Oak Bluffs. Tickets at door or at firstname.lastname@example.org.