It's a Wonderful Life at Trinity Repertory
There’s a lot going on in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, at Trinity until January 2, despite the apparent simplicity of the staging.
Complex characters are conjured, even as the small cast plays multiple parts; there’s an on-stage sound-effects guy; there’s talk of foreclosures and bank failures and other familiar modern terrors, along with angels serving as the narrators. But at heart, this unusual adaptation of the classic 1946 Capra film remains a splendid, shameless tear-jerker of a story, brought to life by five fine, confident performances. Get through it with a dry eye and you must be Old Man Potter himself.
The play opens on the fictional set of WBFR Radio, and the cast members swagger onstage as 1949 actors, who greet each other familiarly before taking to their microphones, scripts in hands. Foley artist Benji Inniger bangs tiny doors shut and splashes a hidden bucket of water to create the play’s aural landscape, and in some virtuoso performances, Fred Sullivan Jr., Timothy Crowe, Anna Scurria, Stephen Berenson and Angela Brazil bring to life more than fifty characters. At times Crowe, who’s particularly adept at this, plays two characters arguing with each other; close your eyes and you’d never know it was the same person.
Like Christmas Carol, its holiday companion playing in Trinity’s larger upstairs theater and a tale that may have influenced the short story on which Wonderful Life is based, the story employs some familiar seasonal tropes. There’s black-and-white moralizing, a hopeless bad guy, and a deus ex machina device that lets the main character see the sort of what-ifs we all fantasize about. In this case, instead of a possible future, good guy George Bailey gets to see what life would have been like without him in it, and it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that he ends up agreeing with angel Clarence: "You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Wouldn’t it be a shame to waste it?"
Messages of hope, redemption, self-sacrifice and joy are all here, straightforward holiday balm for the frazzled modern soul. But after years of re-run ennui, I’d forgotten the story’s complexities. Good guy George Bailey, played with depth and, especially, heart by Sullivan, is a flawed man. Despite living a privileged life, he feels trapped; he yells at his kids; and, interestingly for today’s audience, he loans large sums of money to people he probably shouldn’t, from the town flirt to people who’ve been turned down by bigger banks. In some ways this is a period piece, and the financial moralizing certainly has a throwback quality – but the anti-corporate message still has the power to resonate among present-day news stories of robo-signers and trader greed.
Despite the radio-play conceit, the production makes plenty of visual concessions. George puts on a jacket to mark his first day at the office; the characters strut and gesture; and, most memorably, there’s a long, completely silent kiss. These things aside, the bare staging means the performances are as naked as any you’re likely to see at Trinity, more like community theater than the usual offerings here, and the production’s emotional clout is a testament to the cast’s abilities. Fresh off their success in the popular Absurd Person Singular, the veteran actors – all of whom are onstage for the entire 85-minute production – let the story, and the language, propel us irresistibly forward. My companion and I were only slightly embarrassed to find we’d both watched much of the last half through welling eyes.
Artistic Director Curt Columbus, who co-directed with Tyler Dobrowsky, has said he’d like to consider making Wonderful Life a regular holiday event, just like Christmas Carol – provided audiences warm to it. Judging by last night’s instant standing ovation, the play has a long future at Trinity. Go see and decide for yourself whether it’s a new Providence tradition in the making. And please, comments welcome below.