In the 1940s, stock actors knew the drill. They would arrive at the radio studio, take a quick look at the script, hop on air and perform a play. That’s simply the way it was.
When Joe Landry adapted the circa-1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a period piece that functions as a live radio play for the stage—one that has been produced across the country since 1997, and will make its debut at the Southampton Cultural Center on Friday night—that same artistic process was Mr. Landry’s vision and intent.
Michael Disher has taken that directive with a grain of salt.
“They say if you really want to capitalize on the spontaneity of the piece, that it really is a live airing, then it should not be overly rehearsed,” the show’s director explained on Monday morning during a telephone interview. “I said, ‘Okay! It’s not!’ But it’s not like we read it today and we’re going to do it tomorrow. We’ve had two weeks of rehearsal.”
And three years of preparation, according to Bonnie Grice, who portrays Violet Bick in the show, which came to her by way of actor Hal Fickett. He had starred in a Shelter Island-based production and suggested it to the WPPB radio personality.
She went straight to Mr. Disher and, together, they developed a collaboration that is the first of its kind on the East End. Not only are they staging the play with a full cast, it will also be recorded at WPPB headquarters in Southampton and aired at a later date. For the audience, it will be a completely different experience from the stage adaptation, Mr. Disher said, but with the same story line.
Considered to be one of the most-loved films in American cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life” follows the journey of George, a man who has given up on his dreams in order to help others—but whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, who shows George all those he has touched and how different life would be around him if he were gone.
“I grew up watching it. It was a family tradition,” Ms. Grice said of the film starring James Stewart on Monday evening during a telephone interview. “And then I went away from it for a while in high school and college. I felt alienated from it. I thought it was dark—taking on suicide, bankruptcy, jail time and violence, depression. And then I came back to it just recently, after not seeing it for 15 years. I saw it again and it was really moving.”
The film was about the importance of life, she said, and how powerful it can be.
“Even if you don’t think you’re much of anything, you have no idea how many people’s lives you’ve touched,” she said. “Oh my God, it gives me goose bumps.”
The cast of 14 actors—two of whom are in charge of sound effects, achieved by using gadgets and gizmos in unexpected ways, such as blowing through a toilet paper roll to make a howling wind—is challenged by this play-within-a-play production, Mr. Disher explained, even though the holiday story is so familiar.
“Once the evening begins, it’s, ‘Okay, I am playing an actor in the 1940s going to work on Christmas Eve and my job this evening is to do a reading of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as these multiple characters,’” he said. “They’re actors playing a character, who’s playing multiple characters, interacting with a large studio audience.
“We hope everyone will bring a significant other or a child or a sibling or a grandchild,” he continued. “Just so we can celebrate everyone’s lives. After all, that’s what makes it a wonderful life.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play” will stage on Friday, November 21, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Additional performances will be held on Saturday, November 22, at 2, 5 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, November 23, at 2 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $10 for students under age 21. For more information, call 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.