A play like this, where actors play fictional actors who play roles in an entirely different play, gives you a sort of double vision. You see not Joe Brack playing George Bailey, but Jake Laurents — a fictional character being played by Joe Brack — playing George Bailey. His interpretation of the character is not Joe Brack’s (Joe Brack doesn’t do radio plays, as there are none now), but Laurents’. And when we watch the performance, we’re not in the commodious confines of the Washington Stage Guild’s Undercraft Theatre, nor are we magically transported to Bedford Falls. We are in a third place: a radio studio in Washington, D.C., in 1946. We are the studio audience.
Why do this? After all, Joe Landry’s script doesn’t create a second story, contrapuntal to the iconic Christmas story. The actors don’t fight, or fall in love, or show up drunk. They are thoroughly polite, professional and drama-free; they tease each other a little bit, but you get the sense that they are doing this for the benefit of the studio audience, which is played by you.
The answer is that it allows us to see a story which we have already seen 105 times in a new way. Nearly everyone knows the story of It’s a Wonderful Life (I’ll sum up the plot for the eight of you who don’t in a paragraph or so), but here we can see it without the grainy versions we see on television at Christmastime, or the enormous production effort it would take to stage the play directly. Instead, the human imagination provides much of the background and fills in much of the gaps, just as it did back in the day, when radio was the principal form of entertainment.
Let me give you the plot, substituting, to save time, the reals for their fictional counterparts. The plot: George Bailey (Brack) is a heroic young man with ambitions to be an explorer. When he was twelve he saved his younger brother Harry (Nick DePinto) who fell through the ice; as a result, George lost hearing in one ear. George’s father (Vincent Clark) is a hero in his own right, running a Building and Loan during the depression, giving out mortgages at affordable rates and fending off the carnivorous advances of the banker Potter (Clark).
When dad suddenly dies, George gives up his college dreams and stays to run the B&L, which would otherwise fall to Potter. He falls in love with Mary (Jenny Donovan); they marry and have kids. George has many battles with Potter but when George’s imbecilic Uncle Billy loses an $8,000 deposit (about $233,000 in today’s money), Potter seizes on it to induce a corrupt bank examiner (Julie-Ann Elliott) to audit George and get him sent to jail. George, in despair, goes to the river to contemplate suicide, but Clarence (DePinto), an apprentice angel, shows him what the world would have been like had George never been born. It’s not good, and the vision restores George to faith in himself and in the world. Happiness, as they say, ensues. (In this production, Steven Carpenter plays the Foley artist, who provides all the sound effects and voices cameo lines. In his one concession to cuteness, Landry calls this character “Art Foley”.)
Critics have accused It’s a Wonderful Life of sentimentality, but it’s not. George is a complex character, whose flaw is egotism, of the “look-at-me-I’m-so-good” variety. The most conspicuous example of it is his refusal to send Uncle Billy — whose stupidity and bad judgment, apparent throughout the play, finally put the B&L at risk — out to pasture. Potter complains that neither George nor his father were good businessmen, and he has a point. A good business executive protects the business, upon which employees, customers and stockholders depend. By putting Uncle Billy’s interests ahead of the B&L shareholders’, George displays a colossal arrogance. He believes his own goodness and smarts can solve every problem, which is why the threat of a calamity which would besmirch his own good name drives him to thoughts of suicide, rather than to a plan of action. He prevails nonetheless, just as we sinners can.
When I saw this production last year (the cast was identical, except that Lawrence Redmond played the roles that DePinto plays this year), Brack seemed to be channeling Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist. This made sense; radio plays were used as a marketing tool for movies back then (when you go, read Bill Largess’ fascinating program notes) and it was likely that the radio play actors would make every effort to sound like the movie actor, so as to give the listening audience a taste of what they would see with the ticket they might buy.
But this time he was less Jake Laurents and more George Bailey, and the effect is electric. When he learns of Uncle Billy’s mistake he becomes apoplectic; returning to his home he is abusive toward his wife and children. In the movie, Stewart’s George seems like a good man acting uncharacteristically like a jerk under extreme pressure. Here, Brack’s George is more like a man whose demons have been let loose by adversity, and it makes what happens next (Mary urging her children to pray for their father) easier to understand.
The first job of actors is to bring truth to the audience, notwithstanding that they are playing fictional characters and delivering lines written by others. Here, whether it is (for example) “Sally Applewhite” bringing the truth of Mary Bailey’s experience to the audience, or Jenny Donovan, the actor who plays Sally, it is the same job, and the same truth. The actors don’t simply deliver the lines; they grimace, smile radiantly, weep and shake their fists, and you get the sense that it is not because of us, the studio audience, but because this is who they are, and what they do. They deliver the character’s truth, and then slip seamlessly into another character. (Among all the fine actors, the one who does this most impressively is Clark, who changes character without taking a breath. The scene in which the choleric Potter and the befuddled Uncle Billy, both played by Clark, argue with each other is a classic).
Periodically the actors slide into commercial breaks for long-dead Washington department stores. (There were two such breaks, unlike NBC’s interminable Hairspray, which had, by my count, one hundred billion). This was the only part in which the actors seemed inauthentic, reading the awkward commercial scripts. But it was clear that it was the radio actors — Laurents, Applewhite, et al — and not the real actors who were awkward. The real actors are authentically representing the inauthenticity of the fictional actors.
WSG makes a concerted effort to bring a 1946 radio studio to life in this production. The set design (Carl F. Gudenius) uses 1940s equipment, and the bulletin board is festooned with war-era posters (“careless talk could cost lives” one says — a slogan with surprising resonance in the internet era). The costumes (Debbie Kennedy) are similarly convincing, all wide lapels and ruffles. Clark is persuasive as the unctuous host Freddy Filmore, and Carpenter seems as at home with his old-school machinery as any sound engineer today. (At the intermission, I saw an audience member talk to Carpenter, who had remained onstage, about how he achieved his effects. Normally, this would be a breach of stage protocol, but here we were seeing Carpenter in the role of “Art Foley” and the audience member in the role of “studio audience member”, so it was OK.)
Consistent with the practice of the time and place, there was an applause sign which flashed when the radio show expected applause from the studio audience. At the end of the show, however, people applauded, stood up and cheered and stood up. No applause sign was required.
It’s a Wonderful Life, A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry from a script by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, which was in turn adapted from the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern. Directed by Laura Giannarelli. Featuring Vincent Clark, Joe Brack, Jenny Donovan, Julie-Ann Elliott, Nick DePinto and Steven Carpenter. Scenic Designer: Carl F. Gudenius, assisted by Rhe’a Roland . Costume Designer: Debbie Kennedy . Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows . Sound Designer: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. Live Sound Designer: Steven Carpenter . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Tim Treanor .