Confession: I have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life. The Oscar-nominated holiday movie has been on regular TV rotation this time of year since the ‘70s and ‘80s, when it ended up in public domain due to a copyright loophole (since closed). But every time James Stewart’s earnest mug pops up on my screen, I flip to a new channel. My holiday viewing taste leans more to Kevin McAlister than George Bailey, but I found The Gamm’s production of the holiday classic a perfect primer to this candy cane of a tale.
George Bailey is a young man with a promising future. After spending his youth dreaming of National Geographic-style adventures, he’s about to embark on his first overseas excursion. But when his father unexpectedly dies, George forgoes his voyage – as well as his college aspirations – and joins Bailey Building and Loan to save the family business from being sold to the town robber baron Henry Potter. George is now stuck in a job he never wanted to save Bedford Falls, the town he was so desperate to leave.
Bailey Building and Loan gives fair mortgages to the local families, helping them achieve their dream of home ownership. To the Bailey family, the town is the whole point of their work: build homes for the community. Henry Potter, on the other hand, only builds to enrich himself, cutting corners on homes and buying up debt for pennies on the dollar.
When George’s uncle has a mishap with a large sum of money that lands in Potter’s greedy hands, George becomes desperate. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he considers suicide. His plans are stymied by guardian angel Clarence, who is on track to get his angel wings if he can save George from this tragic fate.
Directed with a light touch by The Gamm’s artistic director Tony Estrella, It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is adapted from Frank Capra’s movie – itself an adaptation of a short story that riffs on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Set in the studio of WGAM Radio in 1946, you are immersed into the story the moment you enter the theater. The cast is on stage, chatting up the audience before jumping into a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells” (a sing-a-long is encouraged).
Rhode Island theater treasure Fred Sullivan, Jr. delights in his dual roles as villain Potter, who is buying up the town to fill his own pockets, and the affable Clarence, who bumbles his way into saving the day.
Henry Potter is a broad caricature for greed and Sullivan goes at the role with mustache-twirling gusto. It’s an absolute delight watching this master character actor chomp his way through the scenery.
Similarly, George Bailey is a stand-in for virtue, and actor Jeff Church (wonderful in last season’s An Octoroon) charms as the young man who selflessly gives up his lofty aspirations for this small town, which loves him in return.
Talent fills The Gamm’s stage, with the remaining actors all playing multiple roles. The luminous Lynsey Ford, playing both George’s wife Mary and his mother Rose, imbues the women with strength and warmth but manages to keep the roles distinct. Helena Tafuri’s comedy chops are on display in her role of the flirtatious Violet Bick, amongst others; and Richard Noble does yeoman’s work in his multiple parts, including poor bumbling Uncle Billy and the put-upon head angel who has to send novice Clarence down to earth. Rodney Witherspoon II is a delight as George’s brother Henry; and Milly Massey as the radio show announcer is the glue that holds the whole thing together.
Special shout out to Will Malloy, the talented foley artist whose live sound effects lent a wonderful atmosphere to the production. His opener – a live SFX driven rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” – was nothing short of astonishing.
While It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play bursts with nostalgia – from the pitch-perfect replica of an old timey radio station (by Michael McGarty) to the warm lighting reminiscent of a time before the ubiquitous LEDs (by Noah Beauregard) to the smartly tailored costumes (by Jessie Darrell Jarbadan) – the play’s themes of generosity and goodwill resonate.
When George tells his father he wants to do something important, his father responds, “building is important.” It doesn’t take long for George to realize that helping his neighbors achieve home ownership is indeed vital work. “Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?” George asks nemesis Potter, who thinks nothing of snatching a home out from under a family struggling to pay the mortgage.
With current housing prices in the stratosphere, this moment was particularly poignant. Inflationary pressures have pushed a lot of families to the fiscal edge; look no further than the tent city built on the lawn of the statehouse to see this vulnerability in our own hamlet. Would there were a George Bailey to fix it?
Imbued with holiday cheer, The Gamm’s production enchants. If you’re feeling a little bah humbug this season, it’s a warm reminder of how the bonds of community can change not just one man’s – but a whole town’s – fortunes.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs at The Gamm Theatre through December 24. GammTheatre.org
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