Here’s how to prepare for It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (by Phil Grecian), based on the 1946 movie by Frank Capra, now showcasing at the Vineyard Playhouse: Bring tissues because you’re bound to cry at the end (happy tears), even if you don’t normally well up at theatre events. The second piece of advice is to view the production twice. That’s right, you’ll want to sit through two performances. For the first you’ll just naturally concentrate on the actors standing before radio microphones, each with his and her hilarious multiplicity of characters, and for the enfolding of the story we know so well from the movie. The second time you attend, you can turn your attention to a whole other venue of entertainment: On Stage Left, with the help of a bank of microphones, sound consoles, and a whole hill of props, actors/audio engineers Paul Munafo and Jim Novack cut loose with nonstop sound effects such as rattling silverware, a box of sand for crunching footsteps, a cigarette lighter, thunder booming from a steel sheet, rustling paper, tinkling bells for heavenly intercession, and the men’s own vocals for the angel technicians overseeing the human action down below.
The plot for It’s A Wonderful Life is as famous as those other holiday keepers, A Christmas Carol and the Baby Jesus story. A small town boy named George Bailey (Christopher Kann) grows up with a ferocious joy to carpe diem, see the world, go off to college. One darn thing after the next derails his plans — reviving his dad’s building and loan company; saving his kid brother, Harry (Rob Myers), first from drowning after a tumble through thin ice, then from falling through the cracks of a provincial future; protecting his pharmacist boss, Mr. Gowers (Christopher Roberts) from accidentally poisoning a customer; blocking the town’s Scrooge-y tyrant, Mr. Potter (Donald H. Lyons) from his evil machinations; swooning for the irresistible Mary (Joanna Fanizza); having kids; supporting his mom (Linda Berg); and keeping his feckless Uncle Billy (also Christopher Roberts) and his company’s loveable but hapless receptionist (also Linda Berg) employed.
The theme, in other words, is that old, irrefutable adage, Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. Life really happens to George Bailey, and when the medieval torture of life happening turns its screws on George’s thumbs one too many times, his natural enthusiasm, good will and joy desert him, and he stands on the brink of believing he’s worth more dead than alive (courtesy of a good life insurance policy). This is when Clarence (Clark Maffitt), Angel Second Class, gets his chance, after 250-something years of heavenly service, to acquire his wings: He must convince poor, demoralized George that, not only was his own life wonderful for George himself, it revolutionized the lives of everyone around him. And how does Clarence achieve this? Well, he takes George on a hellish tour of how the lives of his family members, friends, wife, town, and even the cozy old pub he frequents, would have turned out had he never existed, starting with brother Harry, recent congressional-award-winning WWII fighter pilot, who would have been buried in the local cemetery at the age of eight had not George yanked him from the ice pond.
What makes this story rattle along like the midnight train to Georgia is the sheer charm and big heart of George Bailey. In the movie, of course, James Stewart flies us to the wings of Angel Clarence and back; in the Vineyard Playhouse production, Mr. Kann inspires the same infectious caring. He brings to the role all the giddy delight of the heroes of 1930’s screwball comedies. Ms. Fanizza is riveting as the girl young George would be a fool not to marry. Each in dual roles, the child actors Anna Yukevich, Katherine Reid, Tyler Shapiro and Russell Shapiro, bring an extra burnish of tenderness to the story. Leslie J. Stark lavishes a basso voice on the radio announcer and other cameos. Chelsea McCarthy as town flirt, Violet, and in other, flintier parts, also flashes the fun of going from character to character with only seconds’ preparation.
Director M.J. Munafo intersperses the on-going “live” radio show with local commercial spots, the ads sung by four cast members harmonizing at a single microphone: “Island grown at Cronig’s,” “Books and sizes in all shapes at the Bunch of Grapes . . . our new location at Number 14 Church street, behind Beadniks,” “Vineyard Bottled Waters . . . no one knows more about H2O, call us at 693-8700,” “LeRoux is French for red hair and is also the best place for assorted housewares,” and “Our Market, don’t you know they have wine and spirits?!” Rob Myers concocted the daffy, old-timey jingles.
On Stage Right, musical arranger, composer and performer Wesley Nagy pulls a whole orchestra out of an electronic keyboard — come to think of it, a third viewing of this show could profitably be spent on Mr. Nagy’s versatility. Fred Hancock’s lighting supports the crucial visual aspect to the audio-dependent dimension of a radio show.
Geneva Monks serves as stage manager, Stephen M. Zablotny as technical director, and Xavier Powers as assistant stage manager. The actual sound design is by way of Mr. Novack, but the recently retired director of the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center is too busy tearing up newspapers, banging pots and pans, and furnishing various voice-over roles for us to necessarily notice his superb behind-the-scenes contribution.
As ever, Ms. Munafo’s direction is witty, scintillating and seamless and, once again, as artistic director of the Vineyard Playhouse, she’s to be complimented for her enticing choice of material. It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play, will be showing through this Sunday, Dec. 21 — which, if you’re reading this paper on Friday, Dec. 19, gives you two or three opportunities to enjoy it, as recommended, two or three times.