PROVO – As I entered the Brinton Black Box Theater at the Covey Center for the Arts, I felt as if I had traveled back through time and landed in the 1940s. The set, designed by Elise Lacanienta and Robert Seely, was a replica of a radio studio. It was the little details that gave it an authentic feel – the old-fashioned microphones, the “applause” and “on air” signs, and the table of sound effect items. It piqued my curiosity and had me even more excited to see my favorite Christmas story played out as a “live radio show”.
The show opens as Jake Laurents, played by Ryan Ward, stumbles out onto the stage, confused and lost, with the air of someone going through a difficult time – uncertain of what to do and how to move forward. He wanders toward the microphones, intrigued by where he has found himself (after all this is 2022 and who’s even seen a radio studio before?), and looks around for the source of the garbled voices and blinking lights, courtesy of our sound designer Robert Seely and lighting designer Spencer Powell. As he does so, Freddie Filmore, played by Ben Hyde, enters the stage and introduces himself as the radio show’s host. Following close behind, our other radio personalities enter the stage, preparing for today’s radio story. Fillmore introduces each actor and who they will be playing in the show. Laurents stops his wandering when Fillmore introduces him as the actor who will be playing George Bailey. He is stripped of his puffy green coat and given a suit jacket and tie to help him get in character. Then he is handed a script and nudged toward a microphone.
From this point on the story of It’s a Wonderful Life unfolds through the art of storytelling. The set never changes and there is nothing to see but actors talking onstage. And yet I had no problem “seeing” the whole story being played out before me. Our voice actors – Lana Sherwood, played by Amber Ethington, Harry Heywood, played by Orion Howard, and Freddie Fillmore each play a dozen or more characters between the three of them. They transition flawlessly from one character to the next, giving each a distinct voice and unique mannerisms, making it easy to follow the story. I knew when our villain, Mr Potter, had “entered” the scene because Freddie Fillmore (or Hyde) would ball up his fist or pretend to hold a cigar, and then talk in a graveling and grumpy voice. But when he quickly put on a face of utter confusion, I knew he was about to speak in his harried high-pitched voice that let me know he was now playing Uncle Billy. Laurents and Sally Applewhite, played by Heather Schraedel, only portray one character each – Laurents as George Bailey and Applewhite as Mary – and therefore were able to give their characters even more depth. But whether playing one or half a dozen characters, it was clear that these actors were not only exceptionally talented but also dedicated to the hard work it took to put on a play with such a unique experience.
The story, written by Joe Landry, followed very closely to the popular movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, helping the audience to understand the story. But there was some cleverly added dialogue for those times when the so-called radio listeners wouldn’t be able to “see” what had just happened. For example, when the crazy but loveable Uncle Billy unwittingly hands over a newspaper to Mr. Potter that contains the $8000 he was supposed to deposit, a conversation between Mr. Potter and the bank examiner helps us understand what just transpired.
Other elements were added to the play to give it a real radio feel. I particularly loved the two commercials snuck into the show. (After the “Duck’s Toilet Cakes” commercial, promising that rubbing the soap on a windshield would magically clean away all debris, I was half tempted to see if rubbing a bar of soap on my windows would actually clean them.) The fact that the voice actors actually performed all the sound effects was a brilliant touch to make our radio show feel authentic! And I was also impressed with the actors who always gave the feeling that they were simply that – actors. When not performing, the actors would sit on stage chairs and lean over to chat with each other or take a sip of water – they never seemed too invested in the story…at least not at first. All accept Laurents who seemed to forget that this was just a story. It seemed more personal to him. After a particularly frustrating moment in George Bailey’s life, Laurents is supposed to act as though George is leaving the room and door slamming sound effects are to follow, but instead Laurents is so angry he truly storms offstage and slams the door behind him.
I was fascinated by the scripts that the “voice actors” clung to as they spoke into their microphones. At first I was bothered by them. I knew they were just meant to be a prop to remind us this was a radio show, but they made the characters seem removed from the story itself. But as the play progressed so did the attachment our actors felt for George Bailey and his plight.
At the climax of the show, when George learns what life would be like if he’d never been born, the stage lights that had always been on suddenly shut off and we are left with a solitary spotlight on our tortured hero. The voice actors are muttering frenzied prayers under their breaths and it feels as if time has stopped as we wait to see what decision George will make. After he calls out his desire to live again the stage lights up and the only sound our voice actors make is a loud collective sigh of relief. The ever present scripts now lie on the floor or stage chairs. The microphones that the actors once congregated around are now just a second thought. And the actors seem to forget this is just a radio show. Nothing else matters but the stream of friends and family who have come to offer support to George Bailey. Or is it Jake Laurents that they have come to show their love for?
Because when the final words of It’s a Wonderful Life are spoken and Freddie Fillmore signs off, the voice actors offer up Jake Laurents’ green puffy coat again, and give him an encouraging pat on the back or a kiss on the cheek before leaving the studio. And you get the feeling that this was never actually a story about George Bailey in the first place, but one about Jake Laurents. Or me. Or you. It’s the universal story of us all when we find ourselves confused and lost, uncertain of what to do and how to move forward. And the answer to our confusion is just as universal – we each matter and leave a profound (no matter how small) impact on the world.
I expected to enjoy watching my favorite Christmas movie played out on the stage, but I did not expect to fall even more in love with the storyline. Andrew Jefferies’s directing allowed this beautiful story to take on a more personal meaning in my own life. I honestly can’t say enough good things about this play. It is a must see for the holiday season, and be prepared to participate by clapping, laughing, booing, “oohing” and “ahhing” as loudly as possible. I’ve already got plans to see it again.