Thursday, December 12, 2013
It's A Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play by Joe Landry, Penfold Theatre, December 6 - 22, 2013
by Michael Meigs
This is a warm, simple entertainment for the chill of the holiday season -- and it was so chilly in the Old Settler's Park in Round Rock last week that park employees had turned off the water at Rice's Crossing Store to prevent damage to the pipes. Penfold folk, using that recreation of a village gathering place for their third annual staging of Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film with Jimmy Stewart, had the right phone numbers to get the bathrooms working again by the intermission in this ninety-minute staging.
Hot cider and cookies are available to help against the chill, but the real warmth is provided by the evident enjoyment of the five-person cast as they bring to life the story that helped affirm hometown values and American identity after the dark years of World War II. Grovers Corners is really Anytown, U.S.A.; George Bailey is the hometown boy who yearned for broader horizons but found himself bound by family and community obligations. Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, who has been trying to qualify for his wings for the past two hundred years, is a sort of George Bailey of the heavenly spheres. The Powers Above set Clarence the task of bringing George through his darkest hour when the wily Mr. Potter, Scrooge-like as they come, is intent on driving our hero and his family savings and loan out of business and, perhaps, entirely out of existence.
Capra didn't imagine that the film would be linked to the holidays. It lost in all its Oscar nominations to the post-war story The Best Years of Our Lives, except that for Technical Achievement (for making non-crunchy snow). In the 1970s CBS began showing it at the Christmas season, and the tradition was established. This radio play version by Joe Landry is one of the most popular scripts in American community theatre. Like Penfold, the Classic Theatre of San Antonio is making it an annual presentation. The Bastrop Opera House, Austin Playhouse and Gaslight Baker Theatre in Lockhart have all done it in recent years.
Surely you've seen the motion picture. If not, you can borrow the DVD from Netflix or purchase a streaming version from Amazon.com, or just watch it in HD for free on YouTube. Or maybe visit the Zach Theatre this month to appreciate the one-man version being enacted by Martin Burke, one of Austin's favorites.
What you won't get from any of those versions, however, is the opportunity to time travel. Landry's reworking of the familiar story puts you into the audience for a radio theatre version in the 1940's. You're cordially invited to respond to the APPLAUSE sign, you'll watch the creation of those ingenious radio sound effects, and -- most of all -- you'll be engaged by the deft ballet before the big old microphones established by director Emily Rankin for these very capable actors Each carries a bulky binder with the script. That's largely to complete the illusion, for they all certainly know their lines by heart.