Who says you can't have it both ways? Trinity Repertory Company is presenting the sentimental movie classic It's a Wonderful Life as "A Live Radio Play" (through January 2) and they've managed to make it an absorbing — and theatrical — experience.
EMBRACEABLE YOU Sullivan and Brazil.
Directed by Curt Columbus and Tyler Dobrowsky and adapted by playwright Joe Landry, it's 85 minutes of intermission-free, memory-rich time travel that brings us back to the 1946 Frank Capra film starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. It's set in the fictional Manhattan studio of WBFR in 1949, suggesting that performance is less about nostalgia than about the postwar optimism of the time. Based on a short-story of the same sentiment, "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, the film made production costs back and then some. But even Capra was mystified about its eventual popularity as an annual Christmas TV fixture, starting in the 1970s.
For recovering amnesiacs and rescued feral children interested in our culture, let me briefly explain the plot. Angel 2nd-Class Clarence, in order to earn his wings, is sent to Earth to convince a despondent George Bailey to not jump into a wintry river. He is in charge of a savings-and-loan bank and $8000 is missing. Cleverly, Clarence jumps in himself so that George will rescue him. When George remarks in passing that it would be better if he'd never been born, the angel latches on to the notion and — snap — George is in a world that has never bene-fited from his self-sacrifices.
So his younger brother never shoots down kamikaze fighters that would have sunk a troop transport, because George wasn't there to rescue him from falling through the ice and drowning, and so on. Importantly, he wasn't there to save the small-town savings-and-loan by continuing to put his life on hold in order to work for it. Instead, wealthy, avaricious old Henry Potter takes over, good working folk can't own their own homes, and the town becomes a honky-tonk. Of course, George is upset, especially because his wife becomes a spinster lady without him. So he joyfully goes back to his old life, problems be damned.
Fred Sullivan Jr. is a lovable George Bailey, whether as a boy in a baseball cap or a young man courting the girl down the street. She is Mary Hatch, played winsomely by Angela Brazil. Stephen Berenson plays Clarence as well as some incidental characters, as the whole cast does. Anne Scurria has fun with roles that range from the potential town floozy Violet Bick to George's youngest daughter Zuzu, who wants Daddy to paste back the petals that fell from the flower she loves.
But nobody in the history of radio theater could have had more vocal challenges or been more delightful to audiences than Timothy Crowe is in this production. What a gamut of personalities and voices! Not only is he the dour Mr. Gower and the wobbly-voiced Uncle Billy, he is one of the squeaky little Bailey boys as well as a gruff bartender. For that last bit, he does a spot-on, perfect-pitch imitation of Sheldon Leonard in the movie role that I defy anybody to distinguish, eyes closed.