Christmas Eve, 1946. Several actors huddle around their microphones, live-broadcasting a radio station’s seasonal drama, complete with commercial intervals and a touch of Yuletide music.
The story they are dramatizing concerns a well-meaning chap from a small town, struggling to save his deceased father’s savings and loan company from bankruptcy.
His world is collapsing, because the town’s ruthless bank manager is threatening to crush the rival financial institution, thanks to a foolish blunder by the man’s dotty uncle.
Our hero is so distraught, he’s about to hurl himself off a bridge in the belief the world would be better off without him. But an apprentice guardian angel intervenes, as apprentice guardian angels are wont to do.
If that plot seems familiar, it should be no surprise. It’s from one of the best-loved Christmas films ever, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the unforgettable Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as his doting wife, Mary.
Vancouver playwright Peter Church wrote the stage adaption, set in a vintage radio studio, in collaboration with actor/director Sarah Rodgers, who says it had a successful run two years ago at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre.
Rodgers is currently in Whitehorse, shepherding the Guild Theatre production that begins a three-week run on Wednesday, November 23. It’s her sixth directing stint with the local company.
“It’s such a beautiful piece. When we did the first read-through here – and I know the play inside out – I was crying at the end, it’s so moving,” she says, before adding that she expects the audience to be surprised and delighted by how physical the show is.
Part of that physicality comes from the actors’ ability to move away from their mics, even dance, as they perform the vintage commercial messages that pay the station’s bills. Most of those ads are for either smokes or soap.
“We were able to choose some of our favourite, very funny commercials and jingles. Camel cigarettes is definitely going to be a big hit.”
One challenge Rodgers faced in casting the piece was finding actors capable of pulling off radio play within a stage play.
“I really needed people who were almost voiceover actors,” she says.
“Mary and George are basically just playing Mary and George, but everybody else has a track of five or six different characters. So I was looking for people who had great vocal dexterity, and a capacity for character work.”
Rodgers finds it “delightful” to watch one actor’s rapid transformation from the play’s youngest character, five-year-old Zuzu (with her memorable line about an angel gaining its wings whenever a bell rings), into Bailey’s mother, or an elderly bank client.
She credits the Guild’s new artistic director, Brian Fidler, with attracting many new faces to the Whitehorse acting community. As production manager, recruiting people to audition, he brought in “terrific, strong choices”, she says.
“My George Bailey is a young man named Oshea Jephson, who is tall and handsome in that lovely old-fashioned way. It’s like he’s right out of the period.”
Playing his wife is another newcomer, “a lovely young woman” named Emily Payne. Not to mention Chris MacFarlane, who plays the conniving banker, Mr. Potter, with the distinctive touch of Lionel Barrymore, who assayed the role in Capra’s film.
“He’s absolutely cut from that cloth,” Rodgers says.
There are also familiar Yukon actors in the cast, including Doug Rutherford as the announcer and Uncle Billy, and Stephen Dunbar-Edge as Clarence, the guardian angel in training.
“He is so adorable and sweet. He’s so cute.”
Rodgers expects much of the audience’s attention to focus on Vancouver-based musician and actor Joel Stephenson, who was also in the Pacific Theatre production.
Stephenson is the only character whose microphone will actually be live, because he is also operating the play’s Foley (the live sound effects board), as well as moving from piano to xylophone to mandolin.
“He upstages the show, because it’s so fascinating to watch what he’s doing. And there are hundreds of sound cues. He is so busy, he does not stop from the moment the story begins,” Rodgers says.
The fact the adaptation takes place in a radio studio tasks audience members with using their imaginations, she adds.
“What a gift, because they can relive those images from the film, if they want, or they can recreate it. Because they’re going to hear the story,” she says.
The story her actors read for their radio audience, Rodgers claims, is reproduced verbatim from Capra’s movie script based on a 1939 by Philip Van Doren Stern.
If the audience sees Jimmy Stewart preparing to leap off a bridge to his doom, or being guided by the angelic Clarence to see how much George Bailey has contributed to the town of Bedford Falls, that’s exactly the response Rodgers wants.
For information about running dates and tickets for It’s a Wonderful Life, check the Guild Theatre’s website at www.guildhall.ca.