Eugene Weekly : Theater : 12.18.08

Life Flight
Lord Leebrick broadcasts holiday classic
by Chuck Adams

Bary Shaw and Bill Reid give voice to Life

Schlocky fare like A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street have a way of warming our hearts during one of the darkest, dampest months of the year. Another seasonal serving of the not-quite-as-schlocky It’s A Wonderful Life couldn’t hurt, could it? If once again watching George Bailey jump into the frozen river to save his guardian angel (and thus save himself) will get us through another stressful holiday season, then by all means bring it on. Now in its second year, the Lord Leebrick’s “live radio” production immerses the audience in the mechanics of late ’40s radio and, more importantly, the milieu of a good yarn.

For those unfamiliar with the James Stewart holiday classic, here’s the gist of it: Since his youth, George Bailey’s (voiced by Tom Wilson) life has been slipping out of his hands. George makes plans to travel the world and then go to college. Instead, his father passes away and bequeaths him ownership of the family business, the Bailey Building & Loan Association. George reluctantly steps into his father’s shoes, just as he reluctantly steps into a marriage with Mary Hatch (Mary Unruh) that comes with a gaggle of children. It’s the American dream, but is it what George dreams of? Later, his uncle misplaces a huge sum of money, an event that threatens to bankrupt the family business and throw George in prison (or so he thinks). George stands on the edge of a bridge, intending to commit suicide, when his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Bill Reid), steps in and shows George what life would be like if he’d never been born. The majority of the play is told through flashbacks that take stock of George’s life and asks, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” For George, who is nowhere close to poverty, life certainly is worth living.

Rest assured, the story will choke you up even if the actors are reading from scripts and changing characters with a shift in their voice. Such is the odd effect of a radio play. Perhaps this genre’s pinnacle was reached in the ’40s with John Cage and Kenneth Patchen’s The city wears a slouch hat, in which a percussion ensemble scores one man’s rise and descent into madness. In It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, the sonic experience is more straightforward. A sound effects engineer (in this case a superb Danny Thomas) stands in the background and recreates the sound of doors slamming shut, footsteps in the snow or bodies falling into a river while five actors (Bary Shaw the standout among a talented group) give voice to more than 15 characters, including the part they play as voice actors in a studio giving a live performance. The result is a thorough immersion in the act of attending a live radio broadcast in the late ’40s, complete with applause cues and short breaks for commercials. 

Someone in last weekend’s audience wondered why the play wasn’t being staged at Lord Leebrick’s Charnelton Street location. Besides the logistical answers (space was needed for the Leebrick’s next production; the Wildish Theater has more seats, etc.), the obvious reason to hold this at the Wildish comes at the end of the play as you walk back to your car. Spilling onto the streets, you realize the classy Bedford Falls is mirrored in downtown Springfield’s historic, 1940s-styled downtown. And for just a few hours in December, Life will transport you.


It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues through Dec. 21. Tix at 465-1506.



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