“An anthropologist could probably write volumes on why people talked that way in film and on the radio back [in the 1940s],” muses Hans Meyer, director of Immediate Theatre Project (ITP) and NC Stage’s collaborative show, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. “We’ve just tried to incorporate that style of speaking as much as possible in order to remain true to 1946 radio sensibilities.”
In case 1940s-speak doesn’t ring any bells, think aw-shucks phrases like “You’re a peach,” delivered with Ward Cleaver earnestness, or a breathy Marilyn Monroe treatment of “He’s making violent love to me, mother!” Or just think of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed — the original stars of It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic film first released in 1946 to resounding … indifference.
Sixty years later, the film’s fans — like devotees of A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and A Christmas Story (1983) — claim it’s not the holiday season proper until Wonderful warms up the TV.
This year, NC Stage puts a spin on the familiar theme, bringing the show both to the stage and the airwaves.
Repetition makes perfect
The well-worn tale recounts main character George Bailey’s conflict between wanting to escape his hometown and wanting to stick it out and do right by his family. He winds up running into an angel named Clarence who gives him the rather gruesome gift of witnessing the world as if George Bailey had never been born. It’s a dark sort of cheer.
“When Angie [Flynn-McIver, NC Stage Producing Director] first suggested it, my first thought was, ‘Oh, great; what a nice story,'” recalls actor and ITP co-founder Willie Repoley. “Then I went back and read the script and wasn’t actually as convinced.”
He continues, “I was a little bit concerned that it was something people knew too well, that maybe it didn’t have that immediate impact anymore. You could do the movie, fine — everybody loved the movie — but it was something that wasn’t modern anymore, something that wasn’t vital and interesting and relevant.”
Even more than that, Repoley was afraid that the shticky aspect of Wonderful came from the translation from screen to radio play.
But, on the eve of the production’s North Carolina premiere, if you tell Repoley that Wonderful is hard to imagine as a radio show, his response is, “Good.” (Of course, these days, other than A Prairie Home Companion, there’s little in the way of radio theater to reference.)
“If we assume we know the story ourselves, we’re missing something,” he asserts. “The idea is, if you close your eyes, you’re hearing it as if you were hearing it on the radio. You’re hearing something a lot bigger than what you’re seeing, and that idea seemed like something really interesting to explore, because there’s more here than meets the eye.”
Listening to a radio drama is a bit like enjoying a book on tape — there’s no visual action, but the imagination draws its own pictures. A radio play, however, traverses the territory between listening to a story and watching a theatrical performance with full-on sets, costumes and characters.
Wonderful dances between actors (in 1940s-era hair and attire) presenting straight into old-fashioned microphones, and those same actors interacting with each other. “There is a difference from scene to scene,” says Meyer (also a co-founder of ITP). “A more businesslike scene, between George and Mr. Potter in Potter’s office, for example, may get played more formally, with actors staring straight out, while an intimate scene between George and Mary is played closer to the mike with a lot more eye contact back and forth.”
The production, set in the studios of the fictional WBFR Radio, also features sound effects executed, radio-style, by local musician and engineer Chris Holleman. “He doesn’t have a lot of theatrical background,” Repoley says of the Foley artist. “But he’s really handy. [He knows] who to get interesting sounds out of everyday objects.” Which should make for a rewarding broadcasting experience: The performance will air on local station WCQS as well as on stage.
“It’s definitely not the script 100 percent, but it’s the story,” the actor notes. “To me, it’s about if you keep doing the things you know are right, you might find a new appreciation for those things.”
“Plus,” he adds, “there will be cocoa.”
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through Sunday, Dec. 17, at NC Stage. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $15-$23. 350-9090. The show is broadcast on WCQS on Thursday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.