The Saint John Theatre Company debuted its Main Stage series last night, November 22, 2017, with It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play. Written by Philip Grecian, this onstage radio play is based on the classic holiday film by Frank Capra. Originally released in December 1946, the timeless story, now 71 years old, tells the tale of protagonist George Bailey.
If you’re a millennial, or weren’t frequenting the cinemas in 1946, and you haven’t caught a re-run of it on Christmas Eve, here is what the story is about. The story follows the life of George Bailey right from his childhood, growing up with his dreams of going away to college and becoming an architect but being forced to stay in his hometown of Bedford Falls to take over the family banking business after his father passed away in order to save his town from the greedy Mr. Potter, who has a monopoly on, well, pretty much everything.
The story takes place in the early 1900’s through the Great Depression. When George is faced with his biggest business challenge yet, he contemplates taking his own life. I know—it’s a dark theme for a movie of that era, but I guess after going through The Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, suicide became a little less taboo. Thanks to a little Divine intervention, a guardian angel from heaven comes along to show him what life would be like without him. While I won’t give away the exact ending, I think it’s safe to assume a holiday miracle saves the day.
But what is a radio play? Well it’s a play acted out over the airwaves. Back before television became widely available, the radio play was a popular form of entertainment. It’s like an audio book without a narrator but with lots of sound effects added in, or like when you’ve fallen asleep to the TV and you start dreaming up all the visuals to the story you’re hearing. However, today’s audiences of It’s A Wonderful Life are not listening over the air waves and will get to see the beautifully designed set of a retro CHSJ Saint John radio station from 1949. In one corner of the stage we have musical director Ari Snyder on the keyboard. In the other corner there is a sound effects booth.
It was fascinating to watch the sound effects crew at work; their job is to replace the visuals you would get with a ‘normal’ play. For example, in the end scenes when George Bailey took a trip to his local watering hole, we could tell he was in a bar, not just because he ordered a drink, but because we could hear the constant clinking of glass.
You also have to do a little more imaginative ‘work’ with a radio play, and theatre-goers that have seen the film will have an easier time picturing what’s going on. That being said, if you’re a bit too visually distracted trying to catch the magic of the sound booth, do close your eyes and try to focus in on the auditory experience. It will certainly help if you’re beginning to get too focused on the visuals and confused by thoughts, like “Wait. Why is Violet talking so differently?” since many of the actors played several characters. And again, because it’s a radio play, complete costume changes weren’t always possible. But when Kathryn Ann Keery did change from Violet over to Mrs. Bailey, she threw a shawl on and her change in voice and demeanor was apparent right away, so it only took a second for us to figure it out.
The last difference we’ll discuss here between this radio play and ‘normal’ plays is that while onstage, each actor held a few sheets of paper—presumably parts of scripts. The lines were obviously memorized, though; none of the actors made visible glances to the script when they were speaking and they acted so naturally, waiving around their paper with their hand gestures. It took me until almost the intermission to realize.
As for the cast and crew, they did a fantastic job, especially given the variety of characters many of the actors were each responsible for portraying. Kendra Murray, in particular, who joins the SJTC for her 12th main stage production, did an amazing job. She portrayed seven different characters and was hilarious in each role. Vince Gregg also played an astounding seven different roles—with much talent, I might add. For the starring roles, Cliff Turner plays George Bailey and is joined by Pippa Wennberg playing Mary, George’s wife. Cliff and Pippa did amazing together. Scott Brownlee did a fantastic portrayal of the villain Mr. Potter. Bob Doherty did a stunning job as the Announcer and as Clarence the angel, among other roles. His mock 1949 radio advertisement for New Systems was spot on and brought the audience back in time. There are simply too many from the cast and crew to recognize them all here, but they all did an incredible job!
Be sure to catch this must-see holiday story directed by Scott Thomas. It shows at the Imperial Theatre tonight (Thursday) through to Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. There are also matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.