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Radio on the stage

It's a Wonderful Life stays evergreen

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It's a Wonderful Life is pretty sentimental—a critique that, despite its grip of Academy Award nominations, has plagued the Frank Capra film since its 1946 release. Still, I watch it when it comes on the TV during the holiday season. The cadence of Jimmy Stewart's voice, the angel Clarence's goofiness and Mr. Potter's villainous tactics (and inevitable comeuppance) all serve as familiar ingredients to the season. Like whiskey cake and ham, carols and Christmas lights, the movie/story is comforting. (As a side note, the film became more endearing to me after I recently read that the original short story it was based on, "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, was a self-published piece of writing with little hope for an audience. After publication rejections, Stern mailed the story to his family and friends as a Christmas card in 1949, and it made its way into the hands of a Hollywood producer. Somehow, that seems fitting for such an optimistic story.)

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  • Photo courtesy of MCT
  • Malcolm Lowe and Karen McNenny star in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a nice change from the film. The radio rendition is put on this week as a presentation of Missoula Community Theatre by Out of the Box Productions. The stage is set like an old-time radio studio with "On Air" and "Applause" lights and three vintage broadcast microphones facing the audience. Even before the show begins, the actors—who, in a play-within-a-play scenario, are pretending to be radio actors putting on It's a Wonderful Life—flip through their scripts and call out to one another in old-timey actor drawls: "Well, hello Freddy!" one of them sing-songs to another.

It's a Wonderful Life begins on Christmas Eve with a troubled George Bailey and an angel, Clarence, who is sent down to help him. From there, we get a replay of George's life as he sacrifices for family and townspeople—from saving his brother from drowning to taking over his father's business despite wanting to go to college. He falls in love and saves his father's building and loan company with his honeymoon money, only to find himself—due to a misplaced $8,000 and a dishonest shareholder facing bankruptcy.

If you know the story, it's an easy radio play to follow. Five actors take on more than a dozen roles. Victoria Larson, for instance, is both Violet Bick, the town flirt, and Zuzu Bailey, George's young, sweet daughter. Simon Fickinger plays the brash, mean Mr. Potter as well as other characters, jumping back and forth between roles, getting the voices just right so as to provide an impressive illusion of multiple characters, especially if you close your eyes.

For a radio play, where the scenery doesn't change much, sound is infinitely important. If you just watch the Foley artist for the whole performance, you'll be entertained. Vern Salcido has a music stand where he keeps his script of cues. The sounds of footsteps are made by shoes he taps on the table. He shakes a jar full of water and beads to emulate the sound of George's little brother falling through the ice. Some of the noises are just for background, but they add that extra layer to help stimulate your imagination. The actors sometimes use props, too, such as the little paper cups they talk into to muffle their voices when they're supposed to be on the phone.

Perhaps most delightful—and a nice reprieve from the main story—are the two intermission commercials the actors (playing radio actors) put on. The first one is a hair tonic for dandruff, the other a windshield cleaner. The actors ham it up in commercial voices and jingles.

It's a Wonderful Life as a radio play is just another means of delivering the story, and it's a reminder of why we rehash it every year. When George wishes he was never born, Clarence shows him how everyone else's lives, untouched by his kindness having never known him, are devastated and dark. You can look at it as a sweet Christmas lesson or as a philosophical tale about how our actions—or lack of actions—affect others. The former take on it is perfect for holiday whimsy, the latter is a little more terrifying. Considering harrowing real news stories of late, it's a good reminder that life and our role in it shouldn't be taken lightly.

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play shows at the Crystal Theatre Fri., Dec. 21 and Sat., Dec. 22 at 7:30 PM nightly. $10.

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