PlayMakers Repertory Company’s holiday play is bringing a decades-old American film to life.
The company’s “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” formally premieres Saturday. The show begins as a 1940s radio show before the actors transition into the film’s iconic roles.
See ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’
Time: 7:30 p.m. Saturday through Dec. 16
Location: Paul Green Theatre
“I think it’s our American ‘Christmas Carol,‘” said Joseph Haj, PlayMakers’ producing artistic director.
Haj said this is the first holiday production the company has put on since he joined staff in 2006, and the season is using this performance to break up an otherwise overtly mature season.
“This season in particular is a very adult season — ‘Imaginary Invalid,’ ‘Clybourne Park,’ ‘Cabaret’ — these are grown-up plays,” Haj said.
“Having an opportunity to make something for young people, to make a play that whole families can come together and watch was very appealing.”
The production is based on playwright Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation of the 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart as the iconic George Bailey.
As part of the five-person ensemble cast, Todd Lawson makes his PlayMakers debut playing both radio actor Jake Laurents and Bailey. Lawson said he is excited to portray the signature role.
“You have to pay homage to the iconic role, and you want to highlight memorable moments from the film,” Lawson said. “I am finding my own George. He’s the great American dreamer.
“Me trying to jump into George Bailey is really about me finding where George Bailey sits inside my own thoughts and feelings.”
Director Nelson T. Eusebio III said Lawson and Maren Searle, who portrays a radio actor and Mary Bailey, only portray two characters apiece. The other three actors account for more than 30 different roles.
Eusebio said the actors differentiate roles by slight changes in vocals and body language.
“Luckily we’re introducing them to the audience through our ears first and eventually see them change and transform.”
While the actors visibly differentiate between their roles, the set changes are more subtle, creating less of a radio studio atmosphere, said McKay Coble, scenic designer for the show.
“The play is written just like you’re a member of the studio audience,” Coble said.
“What happens during the course of the play is the actors don’t react so much to changes in the studio — we want the changes to creep in and catch the audience’s eye.”
Eusebio said every director and actor must face comparisons to classic film’s version when deciding to reimagine iconic works.
“Classics are classics for a reason — they endure,” he said.
“Things that are good long ago that have endured as long as ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ have a certain place on our screens but in our minds as well.”
Lawson said the show does not set out to recreate the film but to pay tribute.
“We don’t want to mimic the movie, we just want to give little remembrances,” he said.
“Hopefully the audience will have the same journey the actors are having — that we are in a radio play and then suddenly, by little jerks and movements, we’re in Bedford Falls.”
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