Bristol Theater Co presents “It’s A Wonderful Life” as impressive, inventive radio play

by Frank O’Donnell

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to produce an on-air spectacle before the invention of television?

Well, the folks at Bristol Theater Company have just what you need. The classic Christmas tale, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” produced as a live radio play, just the way it used to be done before pictures were beamed through the air and collected in little boxes in our living rooms.

Complete with old style microphones and lit-up Applause and On-Air signs, director Christian O’Brien and his stage crew (Tracy Lima, Marie Knapman, Sarah Bullard and Wayne Lima) have created a believable radio studio on stage. Most impressive is the Foley table, manned by Charlie Knapman and Joshua Bullard.

Never heard of a Foley table, you say? That’s what radio folks used in the days of old to create sound effects. Footsteps achieved by hand-walking shoes on a board, or a broken window achieved by shaking broken glass in a sealed box. 

BTC has two casts for their three-week run. I saw the Ivy Cast, with Andrew Conley in the Jimmy Stewart role as George Bailey. 

Here’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a nutshell. George Bailey, pillar of the community, is at his wits end. His savings-and-loan is about to go under because of some lost money, and he figures that he could be worth more dead than alive. He’s about to jump off a bridge when he’s interrupted by his guardian angel, Clarence (Jeff Patota). Clarence shows George what life would be like had he never existed, and suddenly George realizes it’s a wonderful life after all.

No spoiler alerts here. You know how it’s going to turn out. It’s all about the story.

And it’s told well. All the actors in the Ivy Cast (except Conley) play multiple characters – that is, voices. Jay Burns does yeoman’s duty, often carrying on conversations with himself – in different voices, of course. 

The actors are reading from scripts, just like they did in the world of radio, giving the whole thing a real radio feel. The script is full of cornball expressions, but that’s also true of the times. Overall, it’s an uplifting tale about the impact one man can have on the world around him.

Special kudos must go out to Charlie and Joshua for their work as Foley artists. Their effects are excellent and on the money, and Charlie does a little scene-stealing during a radio commercial for a toilet soap. Try not to pay attention to him. (Spoiler alert: you won’t be able to resist.)

The Bristol Theatre Company, in collaboration with JMG Theater, presents “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” through December 16 at their theater on High Street in Bristol. For tickets and information, visit www.bristoltheatrecompany.org.

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