It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Six actors play everyone in the holiday favorite, and they become Bedford Falls

Arts Review

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Larry L. King Theatre at Austin Playhouse, through Dec. 21

Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

We all know that in the theatre, Scrooge rules the yule. This season, though, the miserly one is getting a challenge for the holiday drama crown from a man of the movies: George Bailey.

Joe Landry has taken the artful screenplay that Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling penned for It's a Wonderful Life and adapted it to the stage, with the conceit that it's being performed as a radio drama by a cast of six actors.

At first blush, that may seem as misguided a venture as turning TV's small animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas into a live-action Hollywood blockbuster. Really, a handful of thespians with a few low tech sound effects has to spin that story to an audience with visions of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore dancing in its collective head (not to mention that Capra-corn vision of an American small town)? That feels daunting enough to send George Bailey off a bridge, missing $8,000 or not. But the radio drama setting (and Landry's is one of several stage adaptations to employ that concept) actually works in the show's favor, anchoring us in the film's period while also unhooking us from all those visuals its repeated viewings have firmly lodged in our brains. Since radio can't provide spectacle, we're liberated from watching for scenes to replicate the look of the film, which makes us less inclined to look for pitch-perfect re-creations of the cinematic performances. So the actors are likewise freed to be their own Georges and Clarences and Mr. Potters.

The cast of this Austin Playhouse production takes advantage of that freedom. With one notable exception, the actors craft their own characterizations of the citizens of Bedford Falls. Benjamin Summers fuels his George with a youthful fire, making him more a restless seeker of adventure than the laconic dreamer we see in Jimmy Stewart. His outbursts of frustration and anger feel like impulsive flashes rather than the surfacing of his deeply festering resentment at being made a prisoner in his hometown. But he is also fiercely earnest, driven to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and we not only see why this George is so beloved of Molly Karrasch Wineberg's Mary – winsome and beaming, the model of an ingenue – we see why a town would rally to his aid when he seems about to lose everything. And we see that whole town in just the four bodies of Dirk van Allen, Ben Wolfe, Rachel Dendy, and Michael Stuart, whose swiftly shifting postures and accents are a delight to behold. (That notable exception is Stuart's Mr. Potter, which skitters along on the patrician sneer of Lionel Barrymore. But in Stuart's skilled hands, it's more than mimicry; he locates the heart of that "warped, frustrated old man" and makes it beat.)

Director Lara Toner has deftly choreographed the actors' movements to and from the standing mics and sound effects table so that they glide in and around one another with Swiss precision. And she's just as deftly guided them through this familiar story, finding its humor, its virtue, its pain, and – the thing we return to it for holiday after holiday – its redemption. The actors form a smooth ensemble and more; they are Bedford Falls: a small community that joins together when the need arises, that shares what it has with its neighbors. By virtue of our presence in the theatre, we are included in that number and become part of that village ourselves. And based on this visit, may I say: It's a wonderful place.

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It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Austin Playhouse, Lara Toner, Michael Stuart, Dirk Van Allen, Ben Wolfe, Benjamin Summers, Rachel Dendy, Molly Karrasch Wineberg

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