Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of 1984

Loren Nordlund
Photo Courtesy of Ross Valley Players
What is it about It's a Wonderful Life that turns people into blubbering sentimentalists? (At least this people.) I have seen the legendary Frank Capra film a dozen or more times, and when I get to the end, the tears begin flowing down my cheeks. Every. Single. Time. But for some reason, as I hauled myself into the Barn Theater, home of the Ross Valley Players, during the first big rainstorm of the season, I didn't expect my personal waterworks to kick in the same way they do when watching Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey holding his daughter in his arms by the family Christmas tree and learning how his friends and neighbors have come to his aid in his most desperate time of need.

If you've never seen the film, be aware, there are many spoilers ahead. (And if by chance you haven't seen it, what kind of heartless curmudgeon are you?)

It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, who lives in the small (fictional) New York town of Bedford Falls. George is a real mensch: as a boy, he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen pond. Later, while working as a teen for the local pharmacist, he catches an error that would have resulted in tragic consequences. When his father dies, he steps up to take charge of the family business, a "building and loan" company, even though it means putting his own dreams of travel and college on the back burner. Along the way, he is steadfast in standing up to the local tycoon/slumlord, Henry Potter. When, on Christmas Eve, his Uncle Billy misplaces $8000, it threatens to bankrupt the building and loan and send George to jail for bank fraud. Despondent, George decides to commit suicide. But before he can go through with his plan, his guardian angel Clarence Odbody comes down from heaven to show him how different Bedford Falls would have been if George had never been born.

I suppose I thought this heartrending story when rendered on stage as a "live radio play" wouldn't affect me quite the same way the film does. Maybe, I thought, without Capra's genius and the verisimilitude of film, I could get to the end with dry eyes. And yet, there I was, in the dark theater, dabbing at my face with my hanky.

In the hours since, I've thought a lot about why It's a Wonderful Life affects me like this. (And I wasn't alone in crying–there were lots of red eyes leaving the Barn Theater.) I've come to the conclusion that it's not Capra's genius, but that of Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote the short story on which the film is based. At every turn, George sacrifices his own desires and dreams in order to help others: his family, his friends, his neighbors, and the customers at Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. George is incredibly kind, selfless, and big-hearted. When fortune turns against him, it feels horribly cruel. It's an age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people? So when everyone rallies around George in his time of need, it feels almost impossibly redemptive. Only the stoniest of hearts can ignore the joy and relief George feels in that moment. As Clarence the angel tells him, "No man is a failure who has friends."

But enough about me and my soft heart. Over the years I have been to many productions of the Ross Valley Players. But I believe this is the best work they have ever done. (The adaptation of the story into a "live radio play" is by Joe Landry.) Everything takes place in the confines of a New York City radio station. The set by Mikiko Uesugi is magnificent, and a perfect fit for the intimate Barn Theater. There's a control booth hidden behind a window below the "On Air" sign. There are tables filled with the props needed to create the sound effects. (Props by Dianne Harrison.) Microphones are placed downstage, there is a lighted "applause" sign, and even a Christmas tree in the corner. At stage left is a piano, and two chairs and a guitar and ukulele on racks are placed stage right. It's Christmas Eve 1946, and a group of five actors have come together to perform the story for a nationwide audience.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the cast play multiple roles, perform all the sound effects (including some delightfully clever ones, as when one character delivers his lines into a glass in order to make his voice sound like it's coming over a '40s-era phone line), and even provide the music for the show, tinkling on the piano and strumming the guitar and ukulele.

The cast is a wonderful ensemble, but special kudos go out to Loren Nordlund, who plays the host of "Playhouse of the Air," Freddie Fillmore, as well as more than a dozen more characters, shifting his malleable voice to make each distinct and delightful. The rest–Evan Held, Elenor Irene Paul, Molly Rebecca Benson, and Malcolm Bowman Rogers–perform their parts with a delicious earnestness that borders on corn, but is nonetheless perfect for a '40s-era radio cast. Director Adrian Elfenbaum keeps the action sprightly and the comedy perfectly timed.

Every holiday season I seem to find a production that is a wonderful alternative to the usual fare of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker. This year I heartily recommend Ross Valley Players' production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. It's a gift to all of us in the North Bay (and beyond). Just make sure you bring some tissues!

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through December 17, 2023, at Ross Valley Players, Barn Theater, in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $35 general admission. For tickets and information, please call 415-456-9555, ext. 3.