For Asheville theatre audiences, the holiday season has long been associated with Montford Park’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. (Although last year, something called A Twisted Carol reared its vile and insolent head in N.C. Stage’s Catalyst Series as part of the Bernstein Brothers Christmas Spectacular, and seemed for a time to be positioning itself as an annual rival. But this turns out to have been a false alarm, and it’s once again safe to bring children to a Christmas show here.) For the past few years, however, we’ve had something else to look forward to as well: Immediate Theatre Project’s adaptation of the now classic 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life.
The movie is, I assume, familiar territory. Basically it’s the story of a young man (“George Bailey,” played by a not-actually-all-that-young Jimmy Stewart) who gives up his dreams of college and other glorious adventures in order to help out in his little hometown of Bedford Falls. What with one thing leading to another the way it usually does, our hero eventually falls into despair, and would soon thereafter be falling one-way into the icy river too, were it not for the timely arrival of his guardian angel, one “Clarence,” who convinces him to forget all this suicidal foolishness by showing him what Bedford Falls would be like had he (George) never lived. Apparently things would have been pretty shabby in Bedford Falls had it not been for our George Bailey; who happily decides to put his life back on after all, and lo! everything works out just plain swell in the end anyway.
Given this kind of cinematic perfection, one wonders what madness could account for a theatre company’s desire to make a play out of it. Well, Immediate Theatre Project’s current solution is rather ingenious. I say “current,” because the play has seen several iterations before now, all of which stage the show as a 1940’s-style live radio play broadcast. In other words, the actors on stage are playing 1940’s radio actors, who in turn are playing the characters of It’s A Wonderful Life for an imaginary audience out there in radio-land. Beyond the “nostalgia effect” of the radio show premise (think A Prairie Home Companion), the fun comes from seeing a small cast of actors not only play the thirty-odd characters of IWAL, but do all the sound-effects as well — using everything from pots and pans, to a toilet plunger in a bucket of water, to a burlap sack full of something that is supposed to sound like broken glass. This makes for a delightfully complex experience for the theatre audience: We get to listen to (and imagine) the story of IAWL while at the same time marveling at the very different theatrical story unfolding before our eyes.
In his new adaptation, Willie Repoley does something really smart: he beefs up the fictional radio actors’ story as “frame” for the Wonderful Life story. Unlike previous incarnations of the show, this one gives us radio actors who are sympathetic, complex and absurdly under-prepared, with the result that the theatre audience (which has also been “cast” in the show as the 1940’s studio audience) roots for them heart and soul. We see the preposterous odds against their pulling the radio show off, and we really want them to succeed. Witnessing “Mays” (played by Michael MacCauley) realize in the nick of time that he needs to do “Mrs. Hatch,” or put on his protective goggles to do the glass-breaking sound, or “covering” after he’s inadvertently knocked over a large cooking pot — all this is just good clean family fun.
In fact, it’s the theatrical essence of the show. And frankly, I wish there had been more of it. The possibilities for sight gags and physical comedy are virtually endless in this show: The premise (live-radio-play-done-with-high-stakes-by-incompetent-but-likeable-pseudo-actors) is perfect for this sort of thing. The only limits here are the inventiveness and skill of the real actors and their director. Charlie Flynn-McIver (Artistic Director at N.C. Stage) finds some hilarious moments with his cast, and, a consummate actor himself, he knows how to help the actors make the most of these moments. But the play calls for more, for every outrageousness of physicality, slapstick, near-miss and narrowly-averted catastrophe. We should be on the edge of our seats. Instead, these radio actors who (according to the exposition) are woefully under-prepared and literally winging it, pull the whole thing off with nary a hitch. Which is, of course, good entertainment for most practical purposes. But as always, what one really wants is side-splittingly great entertainment.
I should say a word or two about the cast, lead by Repoley himself as “Lee Wright.” There’s not a weak leg on this props table, so to speak: Repoley, MacCauley, and the two women, Tiffany Cade (“Kitty Dale”) and Kathryn Temple (“Evelyn Reed”) are all at the top of their game here, and they’re obviously having a good time. But Cade and Temple are particularly radiant on stage. Cade possesses uncanny vocal versatility and a stage-presence that simply cannot be argued with. Temple moves about the stage with a very different quality: the word “ethereal” comes to mind. There’s something sweet and vulnerable, and at the same time deeply earnest, about her acting. Her face and eyes express an attentiveness that in an odd way remind one of Buster Keaton: beautiful and placid with simple concentration amidst the ridiculous uproar.
In any event, the show is good news indeed for Immediate Theatre Project, N.C. Stage’s official Resident Company and one of the more interesting and successful theatre companies in town. Many of us felt more than a little misgiving when word went round several months ago that ITP’s Artistic Director, Hans Meyer, had accepted a job in Alaska. Meyer had a hand in putting on some challenging and high-quality plays here in Asheville since the company’s founding in 2004, including Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, David Mamet’s Oleanna, Richard Dresser’s Below the Belt and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Along with fellow Guilford College grads Repoley (ITP’s Producing Director), Lauren Fortuna (ITP’s Managing Director) and a judicious project-to-project selection of actors and designers, Meyer did much to “raise the bar” for independent theatre here. His departure was cause for concern. Happily, with Live From WVL Radio Theatre: It’s A Wonderful Life, Immediate Theatre Project shows no signs of slowing down.
Live From WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life, adapted by Willie Repoley. A co-production of Immediate Theatre Project and North Carolina Stage Company. Directed by Charlie Flynn-McIver. Lighting Design by Michael Lowery. Costume Design by Deborah Austin and Lauren Fortuna. Music by Nathan Shirley. Stage Manager: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Featuring: Tiffany Cade, Michael MacCauley, Willie Repoley and Kathryn Temple. Performances: Through Dec. 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, in downtown Asheville. Tickets $15. 239-0263 or www.ncstage.org.