PLYMOUTH INDEPENDENT – Remember “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”? It’s one of the heart-over-head verities of the seasonal favorite film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And every other year, audiences in Plymouth have an opportunity to see a lively, boundary-pushing radio play version of the popular seasonal tale that teaches how much difference a single life can make.
The radio play version of the classic film has become an audience-pleasing standby for the professional, Plymouth-based Americana Theatre Company. The group performs its own radio-play version during alternate Christmas holiday seasons at the Plymouth Center for the Arts, at 11 North St.
Shows start on Saturday, Dec. 9, and continue through Sunday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. every evening but Monday. Two shows are scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 16, at 2 and 7 p.m.
“We’re trying to make it a Christmas tradition for some people,” said the company’s Derek Martin, who with Marianne Savell is directing this year’s show.
As a live version of a 1940s-era radio play, the show takes advantage of the genre’s eccentric possibilities. The radio play makes use of props such as microphones and quick costume changes. Actors play numerous roles (a small cast portrays the show’s 40 roles), microphones are prominent, and at various – and increasingly frequent – points throughout the crowd-pleasing denouement, “sound effects” steal the show. Audience response is also encouraged by frequent flashing of the “applause” sign.
The radio-play technology of an earlier day makes for infectious live theater, Martin said. Audiences prove happy to applaud on cue, he noted.
Released in 1946, produced and directed by Frank Capra, “It’s a Wonderful Life” now figures high on the lists of best American films of all time. Jimmy Stewart played the lead, the honest and compassionate manager of a struggling mortgage company that loaned money to people who could not otherwise afford to own their own home. Donna Reed played his wife. Lionel Barrymore played the villain, the scheming banker Potter.
“The challenging part of the whole thing is to use the radio play treatment and still find the heart,” Martin said, such as in “the intimate moments between Mary and George.”
Martin said that in writing the script for their company’s radio-play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Americana Theater Company members such as Jesse Sullivan, Jesse Winton, and he were able to insert references into the show for local backers, including as Martini’s Bar & Grille in downtown Plymouth.
“We get the biggest kick out of that,” said Martin, who grew up in Carver and teaches theater at Stonehill College.
Plymouth was always a town with attractions, he said. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to create a theater in Plymouth. We thought it really should have a professional company.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is not only about laughs and sound effects, it’s a morality tale as well. George Bailey, who learns how important his every good deed has been, is played by Jesse M. Sullivan. His wife Mary by Trina Vargas, George’s bumbling partner Clarence by Nick Hancock, and David Friday’s roles include Potter, the villainous banker.
Friday, Martin said, has “a big baritone voice. The best voice in radio.” Sometimes, he added, an actor playing two characters entertains the audience by “arguing with himself.”
The Hollywood studio film dragged at the box office when it was released in the postwar year of 1946, but it has become a classic in the decades since. After its copyright lapsed in 1974, TV networks could screen the movie without paying fee. Its moralistic plot, a classically sympathetic character pitted against a nasty one resonated with TV audiences, and the film became a holiday season staple in many households. The plot’s quintessential “magic of Christmas” ending helped make the movie a seasonal favorite. Fans look forward to watching it every year, or screening it in the background at holiday gatherings.
The tale’s ultimate message – that every life matters – is a supremely democratic one. When quintessential good neighbor George’s faith is restored by a messenger from heaven and returned to the bosom of his family and his mortgage company saved by the love and generosity of the town’s good people, it’s not only a victory of good over evil but a vindication of America’s faith in “the common man.”
Tickets for “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” are $35 adults, $30 for students and seniors. To reserve tickets, visit tickets.americanatheatre.org
By Robert Knox