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For many, the special programs and films are a big part of the pleasure people get every December in anticipation of the holiday season. While there can be a debate about what the best of those films might be - with candidates ranging from the sweetness of Miracle on 34th Street to the hilarity of Christmas Vacation - it can't be argued that It's a Wonderful Life is likely the most watched of all the holiday films. Although rights to the film are now firmly held, and airings are a bit more sparingly doled out, the film was for decades in the public domain and could easily be seen on nearly every channel dozens of time from Thanksgiving on. There are few moments more intrinsically Christmas than George Bailey's poignant brush with the eternal and Clarence's quest for his wings.
First Presbyterian Theater has staged It's a Wonderful Life before, but this year's performances have a unique and special twist. For those who remember or have heard stories from parents and grandparents about the days when radio dramas and comedies provided the escape that now belongs to television, this year's FPT production is a radio-drama inspired telling of the classic story of the Bailey Building and Loan. Part heartwarming Christmas play and part behind the scenes storytelling, the play - as adapted by director Thom Hofrichter - is a sweet and entertaining twist on a standard stage play and allows for both a smaller set and a trimmed cast while never losing any of the heart and spirit of the Capra original.
In fact, in Hofrichter's Director's Notes, he says that this production - the fifth for FPT - is staged as a radio drama to allow the script to follow the film more accurately. No longer required to cut scenes or characters due to staging concerns, Hofrichter's adaptation allows for the entire tale of George Bailey to shine. And shining along with the story are the actors who very capably handle their roles.
In fact, other than Kevin Torwelle and Catherine Harber who play George and Mary Bailey respectively, every other performer is left to tackle multiple roles, each demonstrating tremendous range. Watching Austin Berger move seamlessly between Mr. Martini, Pa Bailey, Gower and a hilariously understated bank examiner is a delight. But perhaps no one showed more ability to channel different characters than David Sorg who managed to perfectly portray both the guileless Clarence and the dastardly Potter, managing voices completely unique to each character.
While Torwelle and Harber aren't required to switch from character to character as their costars do, their challenge was still significant. So iconic are the film portrayals of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed that it would be easy for them to underwhelm. But Harber sweetly captured Mary Hatch Bailey, showing a lightness and loyalty that we've come to expect from the character. And Torwelle brilliantly resisted any attempt to impersonate or invoke Stewart's distinctive delivery, portraying the beleaguered George as less world weary and more earnest than what we've seen in other performances. If he drops the ball, the entire show collapses, but he was clearly up to the challenge.
An added bonus was the delightful contributions of Duke Roth, who capably handled duties as Sam Wainright and more significantly provided sound effects as Foley artist for the "radio" production. Those added touches, and the classic radio organ music provided by Jeanette Walsh, were the icing on the cake of an exceptional production.