Review: It’s Still Wonderful, This Life

by | Dec 12, 2023

Above: In front: Lynsey Ford (Mary Hatch) and Tony Estrella (George Bailey). Background, from left: Will Malloy (Foley Artist), Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Henry F. Potter/ Clarence). Photo by Nile Scott Studios

There’s hardly a more American Christmas fable than the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. A tale of self-sacrifice and redemption, it’s essentially the flip side of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, which would premier a few years later in 1949. 

It’s appropriate that the Miller play was a sensation from the moment it appeared while It’s a Wonderful Life attained its place in our hearts years later thanks to a revival. Perhaps the sort of truths that Miller spoke to about the fading American Dream or its illusory nature in the first place eventually required the nostalgic palliative of Franz Capra’s movie.

For similar reasons, there’s something very sweet and romantic about the Gamm’s presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life as a radio play. The very idea of a radio play takes us back to the forties when post-war idealism such as the Capra movie helped to ease the horror of the Holocaust and what it said about humanity. It gives the employees of WGAM Radio a reason to be dressed in the period attire of the movie, and the gimmick really sets the stage so to speak.

So while there’s no denying this is a staged reading of a movie, it’s something more as well – it’s an illusory radio station whose cast has pulled together to put on a show, and they look the part they play, be that Uncle Billy (Jim O’Brien), evil capitalist Mr. Potter (Fred Sullivan Jr.), or the protagonist George Bailey, portrayed by the Gamm’s artistic director Tony Estrella. It also adds the inimitable joy of watching the work of a Foley Artist (Will Malloy), who creates the sound effects used in radio (and filmmaking). 

From the very functional, believable radio station stage, to pianist Milly Massey’s interstitial narration to the sponsor’s commercial jingle to messages from “listeners” read during a brief mid-play intermission, to engaging the audience in Christmas Carols, there’s a sense where the production works in all of these meta- manner to recreate a moment – probably mythical in the first place – where this kind of intimate camaraderie and compassion were common coin.

So that while on its surface this is a staged reading – right down to the stage book of lines the actors turn the pages of but hardly glance at – it feels like a performance within a performance. And frankly, it felt good to have my imagination exercised. The plot’s familiar enough from the movie that one didn’t need flats or props to recreate the scenes; it was enough to get into the performance of the performance.

To that end, the Gamm is up to the task bringing real yuletide brio. In a world increasingly facing down its own darkly troubled heart, the enthusiasm and bright, bountiful spirit It’s a Wonderful Life embodies in their hands is a delightful counterbalance. 

Estrella seems perhaps a bit flintier than Stewart which makes his decision to embrace his failure to leave Bedford Falls a stronger, deeper change. Malloy brings real whimsy and charm to his Foley Artist, while both O’Brien and Sullivan nail their (sadly) rather narrow characters. Lynsey Ford and Helena Tafuri are terrific at capturing George’s eventual wife, Mary Hatch and aspiring artist Violet Bick, respectively. Massey’s dame pianist lives much larger than her role. Andrew Iacovelli is great as George’s little brother Harry, and doubled other roles as did several other actors. 

As good as the cast is individually, there’s real sinew and energy tying them together. It’s also terrific material that grabs the emotional heartstrings and speaks to our own insecurities and doubt at our place and position in the world, or more profoundly, in the hearts of those we hold dear. Then there’s the novelty of witnessing a live radio play – right down to the audience APPLAUSE light.

This is the fifth annual performance of Joe Landry’s stage adaptation, which is directed by Damon Kiely. The seamless old-timey vibe helps to highlight our continual hope that our small struggles and generosities add up to something far more than we could ever comprehend without a guardian angel to show us.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Dec. 12-24, 7:30 p.m. The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. 401-723-4266.

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

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