Adapted by Joe Landry
from Frank Capra’s film
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Merrimack Repertory Theatre
November 25 – December 20, 2015
With Nael Nacer (Jake Laurents), Celeste Oliva (Sally Applewhite), Joel Colodner (Freddie Filmore), Jason Bowen (Harry Heywood), Veronika Duerr (Lana Sherwood)
The film It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is a holiday icon, a compelling story of character, loss of faith and redemption told with down-to-earth directness and a flavor of emotional honesty. Starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as his wife, Mary, and a passel of great actors including the legendary Lionel Barrymore as the evil Mr. Potter, the film is so well known and loved that it’s hard to imagine an adaptation being as satisfying as the original. Remarkably, this one is.
Playwright Joe Landry, who seems to have created a subspecialty in this sort of staged retelling of classic films (he also has done The 39 Steps, Reefer Madness and Vintage Hitchcock), hits the mark here with his ingenious recasting of the story as a radio drama with the actors onstage playing radio actors playing the characters from the film (get all that?). That two-step removal from the story itself is interesting, and what compounds the curiosity is the notion that the airing of the radio show is set at exactly the same time as the setting of the film. It’s a curious reconstruction of history in which the film is not even considered as existing and the radio show displaces it as an alternate reality.
The story is the same as it is in the film –
George Bailey (played by Nael Nacer’s onstage radio personality Jake Laurents) has big dreams to travel and see the world, but life catches up with him and he is forced to remain in Bedford Falls, New York in order to cover the family business, a small savings bank, after his father’s death. He falls in love with and marries Mary (played by Celeste Oliva’s onstage radio personality Sally Applewhite) and has much to be thankful for, though life and circumstances catch up with him and force him into a state of despair.
In this great adaptation of the film and a brilliantly executed production, each of the five actors plays a variety of roles, with some of them, Joel Colodner (Freddie Filmore) in particular, handling so many at once that it’s like watching an expert thespian juggler at work. In addition, each of the actors, contributes expertly and with remarkable timing in creating a series of related sound effects. It’s all done seamlessly, including the calling up of the right tunes on the 97 year old player piano that sits onstage stage throughout.
Nael Nacer, a talented actor who seems to be playing in every theater in town (he did a fabulous job in Annie Baker’s The Flick at the Gloucester Stage earlier this fall), does a beautiful job playing Jake Laurents who in turn plays George Bailey. Apparently, as Nacer recounted in the talkback after the show, he saw the film only once before doing this production. Raised in Paris, Nacer remarkably speaks English with no accent and does a perfect rendering of the Bailey role without doing an imitation of Jimmy Stewart. His rearing in France is the likely explanation for his lack of multiple previous viewings of the film which is so front and center especially during holiday time here. Wisely and intentionally, when he was cast for this role, he avoided overexposing himself to it in the interest of crafting his own interpretation of the well-known protagonist.
Celeste Oliva (Sally Applewhite) was powerful last season in a solo performance in Grounded at Central Square Theater as a tough female drone pilot. Here she pulls off the very different role of Mary, George’s betrothed, in a charming portrayal, believable, without, as well, dramatically cloning Donna Reed.
Joel Colodner (Freddie Filmore) does a truly amazing job as Mr. Potter, the awful tyrant, and a whole bunch of other roles, sometimes in such rapid succession that it’s hard to believe he can pull off all the different voices and characters so convincingly all at once. He does. It’s a strikingly adept interleaving of characters during which Colodner seems not to miss a beat.
Veronika Duerr (Lana Sherwood) who plays Bedford Falls’ siren, Violet, is convincingly right out of the era, brassy and with a heart of gold.
Jason Bowen (Harry Heywood), as the angel, Clarence, and other roles, provides a sweet and lighthearted touch.
Multiple gags come off very well, including those associated with the pretense of the radio show as broadcast from a station called WMRT in Lowell, MA. There are beautifully sung ads for Moxie and for DeMoulas markets.
DeMoulas Market actually had its start in Lowell in 1917, so it’s not historically invalid to include it. Given the widely publicized drama about the familial conflict over ownership of the DeMoulas chain over the past couple of years, the ad provides historic color with contemporary relevance.
This play, naturally a holiday favorite, has apparently had over 1000 productions since it was first produced in 1996. Its inventive conception couches the ingenious reconstruction of the film’s dialogue in a way that is distinctively intriguing. Put together with a wonderfully capable cast and adept direction the result is a seamlessly executed production, both an entertaining and a moving account of an already well-loved film story.