"Wasn't there a movie It's a Wonderful Life?"
I thought surely the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio subscriber beside me, a woman at least my age, was joking. Hadn't everyone seen that cornball Jimmy Stewart vehicle, rerun on television annually during the holiday season, a few dozen times?
But she hadn't, and she wasn't. "With Henry Fonda?" she asked.
I gently corrected her, and in the intimate confines of a theater transformed into a radio set, we settled in for a truly meta experience: It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. The 1946 Frank Capra film, itself based on a Philip Van Doren Stern short story, inspired live radio adaptations featuring the movie's stars. But this intermissionless 90-minute show, which premiered in 1996, has a different origin story: Playwright Joe Landry set out to write a more typical stage adaptation of the movie but switched course when the bigger-budget project proved infeasible.
At the Walnut, we are back in the 1940s. It is Christmas Eve, and Scott Groh's detailed studio set, complete with coffeemaker, vintage posters, and applause sign, is adorned with holiday lights and greenery. Speaking into old-fashioned radio mics, five immensely hardworking actors conjure the characters and atmospherics of small-town Bedford Falls. They supply all the voices, contribute sound effects, perform music, and even sing advertising jingles set to Christmas melodies during commercial breaks. We have a part, too: as the appreciative studio audience.
Does it sound hokey? An improbably distancing rendering of a A Christmas Carol-like story that already demands several levels of suspended disbelief?
Maybe, but thanks to this talented ensemble, smartly directed by Jesse Bernstein, and Landry's remarkably efficient script, the darn thing works. Heck if I didn't fight back a tear or two as George Bailey (the actor Jake Laurents, played by Damon Bonetti) discovers that his modest life of mortgage-lending and self-sacrifice is actually rich in family, friendship, and love.
Bonetti doesn't exactly impersonate Stewart, but he certainly evokes him. The man, it seems, can't catch a break. For all his ambition and smarts, fate strands him in Bedford Falls. The Great Depression and his Scrooge-like nemesis, Mr. Potter (Freddie Filmore, played by the versatile Josh Totora, also the show's musical and vocal director), give him agita. Eventually, despair overwhelms him, and a wingless guardian angel, Clarence (the actor Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood, played by Walnut favorite Michael P. Toner), must swoop in to save the day.
Tabitha J. Allen gracefully portrays Sally Applewhite, who voices George's adoring wife, Mary. Jessica Johnson, as Lana Sherwood, depicts a variety of other characters, including the less conventional woman George didn't marry and (with comic precision) his young daughter.
Costume designer Rebecca Dwight gives the women elegant, big-shouldered 1940s looks in Christmas colors and the men smart suits. Shon Causer underlines the story's emotionality with his lighting. Sound designer Damien Figueras adds an array of effects, from doors slamming to ice breaking, and uses a xylophone to signal the otherworldly scene shifts.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Through Dec. 17 at Independence Studio on 3, the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $35-$40. Information: 215-574-3550 or walnutstreetheatre.org.