Confession time: I haven’t watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That is to say, I haven’t watched the 1946 classic film starring Jimmy Stewart, which has evolved into something of a Christmas tradition here in the United States. I know, I know — it’s practically required viewing. I just haven’t gotten around to it! You can rest assured that Mrs. Bonman is on the case.
All this is by way of saying that I was excited to watch Palace Playhouse’s production of the radio play based on the film and experience this renowned story for the first time on stage, rather than on a screen.
If you’ve never seen a radio play staged before, it has a charm all its own. The conceit is that you are watching a live radio broadcast, so the physical staging is minimal and most of the actors play multiple roles, altering their voice, posture and facial expressions to embody all of the characters in the drama. The stage, flanked by brightly lit Christmas trees, is appointed like a 1940s radio station, complete with art deco light fixtures, vintage microphones, and an “applause” sign. In keeping with the style of radio drama, the show is occasionally interrupted by musical performances and advertisements, and these little interludes provide some of the most entertaining moments of the evening. Perhaps my favorite touch, though, is the presence of a Foley artist on the balcony above the stage who provides all of the requisite sound effects, from door slams to train whistles, live and in the moment. If you haven’t seen a radio play before, you owe it to yourself to watch Palace’s “Wonderful Life,” if only for the novelty.
Thankfully, the show itself, directed by Sherri Dienstfry, is a delight. The plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is now iconic, and even if, like me, you’ve never seen the movie, you will likely have absorbed several of its story beats and classic lines simply through cultural osmosis. For the uninitiated: The plot centers on George Bailey, a big fish in the small pond of Bedford Falls. George has consistently compromised on his dreams to help the people around him, and when everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve, he finds himself contemplating suicide, and only an angelic intervention has any hope of saving him.
George is wonderfully embodied by Burke Knapp, who is so present that it’s just as much fun to watch him react to his fellow actors as it is to see him deliver his own lines. Knapp does some stellar vocal work, too, faithfully evoking Jimmy Stewart’s iconic sound without going too far into impersonation.
Audiences will be able to see Knapp and co-star Elise Martin, who ably portrays Mary Bailey, on any given night of the show, but many other roles are double-cast, incentivizing audiences to return and see a slightly different performance. On the evening I attended, Jadon Griffin acted the part of the villainous Mr. Potter, throwing himself into the role with gusto. Melissa Matthews was entertaining as always in a variety of character roles, and Harry Heywood rounded out the major characters as the “angel, second class” Clarence.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” plays through Dec. 21 at the Palace Playhouse, and it’s an auspicious beginning for new theater owners Jenna and Chad Davies. Director Dienstfry has successfully captured the unique atmosphere of a live radio broadcast, and the result is perhaps the most “live” piece of theater you’ll see all year. Whether you’re a fan of the film or not, “It’s a Wonderful Life” delivers a timeless holiday classic.
Ted Bonman teaches English and theater at Century High School.