Joe Landrys 1996 stage version of the holiday film favorite, Its A Wonderful Life, sets the story in a radio studio, acted out in front of microphones. The script has become a staple of community and school theaters, including a number in the Triangle. Now PlayMakers Repertory Company is taking it on, giving it a high-gloss, professional production that expands on the original concept.
The movie is a sentimental tale of small-town resident, George Bailey, who wants to get away but has to stay to run the family business, which comes to near ruin when money goes missing. George is saved from suicide on Christmas Eve by a guardian angel who convinces him that his life has been worthwhile.
A full staging of the story would be a huge effort, but Landrys clever conceit makes it possible with just five actors playing nearly 50 characters, allowing for charming intimacy and ease of production.
PlayMakers goes to the other extreme, starting with McKay Cobles stage-filling 1940s radio studio backed by a cityscape and starry sky. Director Nelson Eusebio III has the actors start at microphones with scripts but soon has them jettison both, staging the story on a large additional playing area. This might mimic what radio listeners envision, but the concept ends up at cross-purposes, with actors sometimes miming props and other times having real objects; sometimes describing events and other times interacting with actual snow and wind. Also, the station is set in New York with a nationwide broadcast, but commercials for current Chapel Hill businesses are inserted.
The actors, however, are top-notch; especially the three who must make instant character changes. Ray Dooley finds distinct personas for cabbie, bartender, rich old coot and brash young boy, all while in the guise of the sophisticated station announcer. Katja Hill is delightful, whether floozy, secretary, tipsy mother or lisping child. Most impressive is Brandon Garegnani, who goes from brash womanizer to impish angel with equal aplomb and humor.
Leads Todd Lawson and Maren Searle give George and wife Mary solidly likable portrayals without any need to reference the films James Stewart or Donna Reed. Mark Lewis plays onstage piano and doubles as the sound effects man.
The production will likely satisfy most holiday-minded audiences, unlikely to question the choice of such well-worn material or its staging in such a fish-nor-fowl manner.