Wonderful life at Playhouse
The Vineyard Playhouse begins its six-show holiday run of "It's A Wonderful Life," tomorrow, December 12. The radio play by Philip Grecian is based on the 1946 film by Frank Capra. It is the bittersweet story of a man chasing the American dream in the turbulent post-war economic landscape of the 1940s. Playhouse Artistic Director MJ Bruder Munafo produces and directs a heart-warming and fully engaging production, adding the creative twist of performing the play in the style of a 1940s radio production.
The story follows the life of George Bailey (Christopher Kann), a good-hearted but frustrated businessman who runs his bank with high ideals and less lofty financial returns. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch as he is swept away in the uncertainty of the Great Depression and the life that would be if he never existed.
The flashbacks catch up to the present, where we find Mr. Bailey perched on a bridge, about to commit suicide to escape the humiliation of the bank's ruin. Having forgotten what truly matters in life, he is reminded by a memorable guardian angel, Clarence, played by Clark Maffitt, who, in the style of Dickens, guides him through what life in his town of Bedford would be like if he had never been born.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
In the style of Prairie Home Companion, the actors approach one of four stand-up microphones to speak their parts. Complete with old-fashioned sound effects and interruptions for the catchy jingles written by local musician Rob Myers, the lack of traditional movement, costumes, and sets are easily overlooked. The show's music is compiled and performed by Wesley Nagy.
The expertly crafted accents and voice control give the performances depth and energy. Christopher Kann, credited for coming up with the idea of doing the radio-show version of the play instead of the traditional version, is especially convincing as George Bailey. He portrays a wide spectrum of emotions as his character undergoes struggles to manage the failing bank. Mr. Kann's voice carries the story with ease.
"It is different to do the play this way," Mr. Kann admits. "It is an adjustment using the mics and the mic stands instead of moving around the stage, but you become very aware of your voice. It was a challenge, because as actors, we have an impulse to look at the person we are talking to and engage them, but with radio, you really have to keep your movements to a minimum. But I think the radio show really gets the audience to use a lot of imagination, which is great."
Joanna Fanizza also seems meant for her part of Mary Bailey with a silky voice reminiscent of actresses of the Silver Screen. "This was my first radio show," she says. "It is fun to work without the distraction of sets and costumes, and be able to really put your energy into using your voice. You learn what you can do with it, and what you can't. I really enjoy it."
Popular Island players, Donald H. Lyons, an utterly convincing Mr. Potter, the money hungry nemesis of Mr. Bailey, and Linda M. Berg, perfect as Cousin Tilly, turn in wonderful performances. The cast also includes Mr. Myers, Chelsea McCarthy, Chris Roberts, Leslie J. Stark, Tyler Shapiro, Russell Shapiro Katherine Reid, and Anna Yukevich.
Lacking traditional sets, the stage mimics the look of an old-fashioned radio hall, complete with a working "On Air" sign. In the corner, sitting behind a table littered with an impressive array of props, Paul Munafo and Jim Novack bang out a racket of skillful sound effects, giving the production an authentic radio feel.
Says Mr. Novack, "The props come from all over. Some I found, and some I created. There are lots of generic sound effects, like the gunshot, for which I use a cap gun, but then I also have an old-fashioned police siren that I think I found at a yard sale years ago. I also found a Claxon car horn, which we have to keep in a padded box so it isn't too loud. Today I am going to unleash the wind machine I built out of wood and canvas."
It all comes together wonderfully. The show effectively transports audiences to another time and place. As the story closes with the entire cast singing, "Auld Lang Syne," and as the country faces its uncertain economic future, it is good to remember what is truly important in this wonderful life.
"It's a Wonderful Life" will run from December 12 through December 21 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and on Sundays at 3pm at the Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven. For reservations and information, call 508-696-6300 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.
Katy Plasse is a freelance writer living in Chilmark.