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Review: 'It's a Wonderful Life' radio play a charming diversion at American Stage

It’s a Wonderful Life presents the production as voice actors on a radio play, adding a self-satirical touch even as its wholesomeness charms.
Published Dec. 15, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Actors ease in to a 1940s studio as snow falls outside. They could be workers anywhere at the start of a shift. They wear three-piece suits, long dresses.

American Stage has set up It's a Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Play true to the script by Joe Landry and a sense of neighborliness that permeated the Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The theater has brought back the holiday evergreen performed here last year, this time for a two-week run. It's a delightful experience, mostly because everyone in it seems to understand what they are there to do — no more, no less — and then does those things well.

That atmosphere, embodied in a set with two Christmas trees and snow streaking the window to the night outside, permeates this production directed by Stephanie Gularte, also producing artistic director at American Stage. Only a few dozen people showed up opening night, and even that seems almost intentional. Who shows up to watch a radio play?

You do, if you'd like to take a couple of hours, tops, for a relaxing and entertaining evening.

Setting up the show as a live reading for radio audiences accomplishes several things. It allows actors to play dozens of roles, with all sorts of pairings that have their moment and disappear. It allows Whitaker Gardner, who plays the station manager, to pull off scores of sound effects as the Foley artist. With the artistic staff, Gardner replicates splashing water with a plunger in a bucket, a ticking clock, a vintage cigarette lighter firing up cigars or an icy wind, all of which narrate the story. The same of glass from an ice cream scoop in a drug store reappears in a bar, as everyman-hero George Bailey tries to blot out his stress with gin.

Jim Sorensen makes an admirable Jake Laurent, the actor reading the part of George Bailey. As the hub of the show and the only one who plays just a single role, he brings in the rest of the cast. This sets up some nice moments — George and Mr. Potter (V Craig Heidenreich), George and his wife, Mary (Colleen Cherry), and George and Violet, played with pitch-perfect comic dexterity by Becca McCoy. Dean Wick also pulls considerable weight as the angel Clarence and numerous other characters.

Wrapping the package up as a radio play also adds an extra layer of removal, which is helpful for current audiences. This drama that could be taken at face value in post-war America now represents nostalgia for a simpler time, when Norman Vincent Peale published a zeitgeist manifesto of positive thinking and good and evil seemed clearly identifiable. We now look at that era more skeptically, as one that at best described only some of the country and did that through rose-colored glasses. The radio play dimension adds a self-satirical touch even as its wholesomeness charms.

A decent test of the result is that you can hear the show as radio listeners would receive it, simply by closing your eyes. A better test is that you don't want to.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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