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‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play’: Old-school story told the old-school way

It wouldn’t be Christmas without “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Frank Capra film had a long road to becoming a perennial classic: It was a financial disappointment when it was released in 1946, and it wasn’t until a copyright snafu briefly landed it in the public domain in the ’70s that it was frequently broadcast on television and was critically re-evaluated.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” presented by Spokane’s Civic Theatre and staged at the Bing Crosby Theater, is a one-act adaptation of that beloved film, and it’s designed to harken back to an era when an evening’s entertainment typically involved huddling around the living room radio.

The stylistic conceit here is that you’re in a studio watching a live radio broadcast in the ’40s: The actors stand around old-timey microphones and drop their script pages as they read them, and a live piano score (written by Chris Beazer) and a small choir provide transitional music.

“What we want to create is the full experience,” director Troy Nickerson said. “When they’re doing the radio show, they have to be around the mics, because they’re actually working live. But everybody is onstage the whole time, so the actors who aren’t doing the show have some scenes and stories they’re telling as actors in the radio studio.”

The supporting cast features several local theater stalwarts, including Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, Thomas Heppler, Patrick Treadway and Melody Deatherage. Many of them play multiple roles, and some even provide sound effects to complement the action.

It was common practice in the ’40s and ’50s for films to get the live radio treatment. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was adapted several times for radio after it was theatrically released, and the film’s stars, James Stewart and Donna Reed, actually reprised their original roles. The Civic’s Christmas Eve production will similarly be broadcast over the airwaves, with Spokane Public Radio simulcasting the audio on 91.1 F.M.

“There certainly is pressure to know that you’re going out live on Christmas Eve,” Nickerson said. “I mean, you don’t want to ruin Christmas. But what a cool thing for a cast in 2015 to be able to go out live on a radio show on Christmas Eve night.”

Unless you’ve actively avoided TV every year around Christmastime, you’re probably familiar with the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It concerns a selfless man named George Bailey (played in the Civic production by Andrew Ware Lewis), who operates his family building and loan business in his idyllic hometown of Bedford Falls, New York.

The greedy banker Henry Potter is beginning to take over the town, and after a large deposit of George’s money falls into Potter’s hands, George contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve. In a reverse riff on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” an angel named Clarence (Gary Pierce) is sent down from heaven to stop George from leaping off a bridge to his death, and he shows George what the world would look without him.

There’s a reason “It’s a Wonderful Life” has lasted as long as it has: It’s a classic tale of atonement and sacrifice in the face of almost certain failure. Capra was famous for his tendency toward sentimentality, but there’s an air of melancholy running throughout this story, which gives it a lot more weight than your typical light Christmas fare.

“It’s that story of redemption and of people being there for each other, all those qualities we’re searching for at Christmas,” Nickerson said. “It talks about how everybody’s life matters. It’s just a good story.”

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