PORTLAND – As a boy, my eyes always misted up at the end of Frank Capra’s 1946 silver screen Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
So when I recently took in Portland Stage’s 2017 rendition of Joe Landry’s well-regarded 1996 stage version – which I never before had seen – the jaded journalist in me almost expected a somewhat schmaltzy take on the holiday story, which to a degree, is more than OK, given the season.
Silly me. I should have never doubted that the show’s director and set designer, the inimitable Anita Stewart (also Portland Stage’s executive and artistic director), would get something more out of this play.
And so, when I learned this week that there were still tickets available for the play, which runs through Christmas Eve, I decided to change most of what was planned in this review as a late run assessment to an outright public plea:
If you haven’t already, you must go see this show, and take your family with you.
Forget the schmaltz; those vibes are endemic to productions of the actual period. But Mr. Landry wrote something very different, and Ms. Stewart molded her deeply talented cast and crew to deliver the goods, and then some.
The story is the familiar one, of do-gooder George Bailey from the tiny savings and loan standing up to the One Percenter Grinch Mr. Henry F. Potter of the powerful bank and business conglomerate empire.
Their dueling, in postcard perfect Bedford Falls N.Y., is framed by the loyalty and love of Mary Bailey, George’s wife, and the bumbling of Uncle Billy Bailey, the timely intervention of the guardian angel Clarence Odbody, as well as countless loyal villagers – many who are immigrants – who owe their chance at the American Dream to the Bailey Savings and Loan.
What is different is the point of view. We do not see the actual story per se, but rather radio actors, all who play multiple parts of the original tale, portray it in what can only be described as a feast for the senses.
In words, that may seem like splitting hairs, but on stage, the difference is stark – and exciting.
As such, we are taken to Studio A of station WBFR in New York City, in 1945. The principal roles, among many others, are all radio actors of the era, and played by many Portland Stage stalwarts: Jake Laurents (played by David Mason), Lana Sherwood (Courtney Moors), Freddie Filmore (Daniel Noel), Sally Applewhite (Emma O’Donnell), and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Dustin Tucker).
The show ran about 100 minutes with an intermission, and its standing ovation well justified.
Stewart’s set was a brilliant amalgamation of steps, levels, rotating floors, and props dropping from the ceiling. It was beautifully complemented by Travis Joseph Wright’s sound, and Gregg Carville’s lights.
The period sense was enhanced by the costumes of Kathleen Payton Brown, and music director and pianist Shane Van Vliet added much gusto with his lively performance. Following his usual path to excellence, stage manager Myles C. Hatch did justice to the Herculean task of stage managing this play.
During the preview I attended there were a few slipped lines, but these surely have been ironed out by now, the run’s last week. At that staging, Ms. Stewart sat transfixed in the back row, typing performance notes furiously on her laptop, and whispering qualitative instructions to her lieutenants every few minutes.
It was no surprise, then that even during that early stage the effort the actors put into the performance was superb, and the results, spectacular. A friend attending with me noted one of the great strengths of this play in a way I had never thought of:
“I have seen the movie dozens of times. And yet, this is the first time I have been able to clearly understand certain underlying elements about the entire story that I took for granted, or that were lost to me.”
Once I digested this statement, everything about “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” made sense.
This wasn’t just a few talented actors standing at microphones and two rotating cohorts/ensembles of about 10 children playing the crowds and the townspeople and kids, and others.
What Ms. Stewart’s cast and crew succeeded at was making this just like a 1940s radio play, when families sat around the radio waiting for their favorite stories – and their imaginations – to come to life.
And in doing that that, it makes us look past the 1940s era schmaltz to what lies at the art of the human condition – and ultimately, how to make the world a better place, with the family at its core (however we choose to define that unit).
Empathy. Compassion. Selflessness. Generosity. Moral Courage. Duty. Love.
Despite our flaws, faults, and frailties, these values are not just steeped in the history of this nation and its people, but are also quintessentially human.
As are their opposites. And here is where Portland Stage’s version of this play really makes us look inward first, and then again outward to see how, even in small ways, we all can be better people, better neighbors, better parents, better citizens.
If you do nothing else between now and Christmas Eve, and you live within a 2-hour drive of Portland, then make a day of it with family and go snap up those tickets which are still available.
Just don’t forget the Kleenex.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs through Christmas Eve at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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