It’s a wonderful play (within a play)

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The Manitoba Theatre Centre celebrated their 52nd anniversary with the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, an engaging and entertaining twist on Frank Capra’s much-loved traditional holiday classic. Philip Grecian’s inventive adaptation is something of a play-within-a-play, portraying a 1940s-era live radio broadcast in which a cast of 10 actors, along with a sound effects man, endeavor to bring the story of George Bailey’s accomplishments and troubles to life.

George Bailey (voiced by Mike Shara’s actor character) is a man who worked his entire life in the small town of Bedford Falls, had a loving wife and four great children. But when his life takes a turn for the worse, he decides to commit suicide. Luckily, this comes to the attention of George’s guardian angel, Clarence, who then shows George what life would have been like to the people he cared about if he had never been born.

The play’s production design and costumes (both by Michael Gianfrancesco) were all very 1940s. This authenticity gave the feeling that the actors, as well as the audience, were definitely in that time period. There were also numerous other little touches that made the audience feel like they were witnessing a real live radio broadcast. For instance, there were applause signs that lit up, and even short breaks for words from “sponsors,” and period-authentic commercial breaks.

There were numerous humorous moments in the production, many of them involving the on-the-spot creativity of the real-life sound effects man, John Gzowski. For instance, he had to run on the spot to make it sound like the characters were running, used a sewing machine to make it sound like cars driving, and used a kazoo to evoke a baby’s cry. Most amusingly, in a scene where George’s brother falls through ice, Gzowski broke a piece of celery in half!

The 10 actors on stage may not have had to make a lot of sound effects, but they did have to play many different characters each, which meant switching voices and emotions. For instance, one character could go from doing a happy child’s voice to a grumpy old man’s voice at any time. Others would have to switch between different accents.

The only complaint I can level against the production is not feeling a connection with these many characters. This has less to do with Robb Paterson’s direction, and more to do with the nature of the adaptation, however. Indeed, since we are watching “actors” performing a radio play, we can’t really get too much personal insight into them. After the intermission I did start to get used to this unique presentation, though, and ultimately ended up enjoying it!
In all, the production represents an enjoyable evening for anyone, especially families. At its best, it reminds us that the world really would be a different place without loved ones and it shows the importance of family. It is a message that definitely rings true during the Holiday season.

It’s a Wonderful Life : The Radio Play runs until Dec. 19 on The Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Theatre (Mainstage).