Theater review: What could be a Christmas chestnut branches out successfully

Diane Sams plays radio actress Lana Sherwood in Alden Theatre's
Diane Sams plays radio actress Lana Sherwood in Alden Theatre's "It's a Wonderful Life," a play in the form of a radio broadcast. (Traci J. Brooks)
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By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our quest to find nontraditional, yet meaningful, seasonal fare onstage brings us to an unusual hybrid performance at McLean's Alden Theatre. This version of the poignant "It's a Wonderful Life" is a challenge to stage, but it ultimately succeeds, and the story works its magic as a warm Christmas experience.

About that "hybrid" business: This is a stage play in the form of a period radio broadcast. It's based on the 1946 Jimmy Stewart film, which director Frank Capra adapted from a short story, and which has become a telecast staple every Christmas season. With that background, it is testament to the core values explored here that it works rather well.

Director Shayne Gardner and her versatile cast from McLean Community Players bring to life the town of Bedford Falls and its denizens as if in a 1946 radio broadcast. A crisis pushes good-hearted George Bailey to the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve. But before he can jump off a bridge into icy water, he is stopped by Clarence, a guardian angel. Significant events in George's life are told via flashbacks. With a bit of magic, Clarence helps George see the considerable impact he has had on the town and many of its residents.

Bill Brown's simple but effective scenic design puts an old-time radio studio onstage, complete with microphones from the 1950s. We see the pre-show preparations, and some of the sound effects are created live. The radio drama is presented without interruption or asides, except for a couple of short, cleverly written "commercial" breaks.

Should we close our eyes and experience this as radio, or watch it as theater? I tried both. Watching the cast maneuver, with each script-clutching actor playing multiple roles, initially distracts from the drama. But about halfway into the one hour and thirty-five-minute production, the rich storytelling starts to dominate. It generates the requisite lump in the throat by the time we get to the touching toast to "George, the richest man in town," the tinkling bell and sweet little ZuZu's comment that an angel is getting his wings.

Joe Dzikiewicz shows formidable dramatic chops as Jake Laurents, the actor playing George Bailey. Dzikiewicz gets deep into the Bailey character, fully using his face and body for a performance that goes beyond mere vocalization. The fun John Geiger has playing actor Freddie Filmore is infectious, his characters ranging from the mellifluous announcer to snarling old Mr. Potter.

Diane Sams's voice is sensual one moment, adorable as young ZuZu the next, and startling as the sound of police sirens in between. Bob Sams and Nancy Bryan also capably play supporting radio actors.

It's a wonderful show; too bad there are no real radio stations left to bring it to a wider audience.

"It's a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play" concludes this weekend, performed by McLean Community Players at the Alden Theatre of the McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at the Alden box office or by calling 703-790-9223. Tickets are also available at http://www.ticketmaster.com and 703-573-SEAT. For information, visit http://www.mcleancommunityplayers.com.


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