Theater : A wonderful show at Playhouse
As we become increasingly reliant on images - from email and text messaging to the constant barrage of media and advertising visuals - it's nice to revisit an age when radio ruled and imagination filled in the rest. The Vineyard Playhouse offers an opportunity to revisit the heyday of radio dramas by bringing back its production of "It's a Wonderful Life - a Radio Play." This year the Playhouse has scheduled 10 performances, to give everyone the chance to enjoy the Christmas classic about George Bailey of Bedford Falls who struggles to keep Mr. Potter, the unscrupulous banker, from ruining him and taking over the town. But all goes wrong, and George, thinking everyone would be better off without him, contemplates suicide. An angel named Clarence appears and shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born.
The play is faithful to the James Stewart "It's A Wonderful Life," movie, but there is charm and added warmth in hearing actors in an intimate setting, relating the tale of Christmas in Bedford Falls from the fictional radio station, WVPY. Actors stand behind mics, and an art deco fluorescent sign in the back of the stage reminds us that we are "On the Air."
Adding to the authenticity, commercial breaks in the production feature jingles written by musician and actor Rob Myers are performed by cast members. The catchy tunes capture the spirit of radio with clever lyrics extolling the virtues of a number of Island businesses such as Cronig's Market: "People come from near and far, just to taste the salad bar."
The casting is brilliant and everyone in the show shines. Christopher Kann reprises the role of George Bailey. Thankfully, Mr. Kann does not attempt a Jimmy Stewart impersonation, instead embracing all of his sympathetic everyman qualities.
Victoria Campbell, playing both of George's love interests, does a wonderful job of changing her voice to suit the character. Her Violet is a breathy seductress, while as the practical Mary, the actress exudes sweetness and strength of character. Ms. Campbell also throws in a little comedy in voicing the role of the bank teller as a working class girl with a bit of a Brooklyn accent.
Rob Myers and Christopher Roberts take on a number of minor roles, marvelously creating each of their characters. The wonderful Jill Macy is perfect in the role of Tilly, George's eternally optimistic secretary. Veteran actor Clark Maffitt is absolutely the embodiment of Clarence, the angel trying to earn his wings. All of Clarence's appealing naiveté and eager submissiveness come across as charmingly as in the movie. Theater veteran Don Lyons, always a delight, plays the villainous Mr. Potter to the hilt.
Leslie J. Stark, a 35-year veteran of radio, where he produced, acted, and did sound mixing, reprises his role as the narrator along with a variety of other roles. Mr. Stark remembers being enchanted as a boy when he was taken to a live broadcast and reminisces about sitting around the radio as a family when he was young. He says, "What radio depended on was the imagination. What we did was we created the visuals in our head. We're not trained to do that anymore."
Katharine Reid and Kayla Goldman do turns as young Mary and Violet and then as the Bailey daughters, while brothers Tyler and Russell Shapiro convincingly portray young George and Harry and later, George's sons. The soda fountain scene is particularly engaging as the two young ladies are utterly charming as jealous girls competing for young George's attention.
At the last minute on Friday night, Mark Shelton admirably filled in for Chris Roberts, whose wife Elissa gave birth to the couple's second child.
Contributing to the show's success are the innovative sound effects manned by its inventors, Jim Novack and Paul Munafo, who both also act in the production. Geneva Monks, who creates all of the footstep sound effects using different shoes on cat litter, fills in for some of the female roles, displaying impressive acting talent. Using some antique props, a couple of constructions and a lot of inventively altered or combined everyday objects they convey much of the action.
Mr. Novack, who says that he's always been interested in the technology of entertainment, has been collecting odds and ends for years. A stickler for authenticity, he uses two different types of antique phones, two sizes of fabricated doors and a 78 rpm record played on an old turntable for the dance scene. One interesting device is a primitive wind machine made from a strip of canvas and a wooden roller. Mr. Novack notes that for this piece, and others, he researched pre-technology sound effects.
Wes Nagy composed original music for the show and keeps busy during the production switching among two synthesizers, a piano, and a glockenspiel.
Sight, sounds, acting and the message of the play itself, this Vineyard Playhouse offering is a perfect way to herald the season.
"It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" 7 pm, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. By Philip Grecian, based on film by Frank Capra; directed by MJ Bruder Munafo; with Christopher Kann as George Bailey. For ages 8+. $15; $10 children under 18. Dec. 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. vineyardplayhouse.org; 508-696-6300.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.