By Michelle F. Solomon
Once upon a time, eighty years ago, before everyone was slumped over screens of iPhones, families gathered around the radio for Lux Radio Theater. Sponsored by Lux Toilet Soap (which still exists today and made by Unilever) the radio hour adapted mostly Broadway stage works, complete with live actors and sound effects to create a visual rendering over the airwaves. These shows were the inspiration for Connecticut playwright Joe Landry, who penned It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.
Landry combined the popular setting of the holiday film with the old timey CBS Radio studios to create his play. Delray Beach Arts Garage staged Wonderful Life as part of its Arts Garage Radio Theatre series, which kicked off in August with the radio play adaptation of A Star Is Born. Eight actors, plus two sound effects “actors” brought Arts Garage’s Wonderful Life to life for one day only on Dec. 12 — a shame really that such a worthwhile production only had a matinee and evening performance.
Producer John Watts of Arts Radio Network, a website devoted to the Palm Beach County arts scene, hatched the Radio Theatre idea at Arts Garage. He and his wife, Caroline Breder-Watts, a radio veteran now heading the Palm Beach Film Festival, originally produced Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds for WXEL in 2002.
For 80 minutes, with no intermission, Arts Garage became Studio A at WBFR in Manhattan, and theatergoers were transported back in time, Christmas Eve 1946, as the in-studio audience for this holiday classic.
Wonderful Life featured Matt Stabile doing his best James Stewart, although adding a hefty dose of wide-eyed originality, to the role of George Bailey. Niki Fridh played his wife, Mary, and Robert Olson was plucky Clarence, the Angel. Playing multiple roles were David Nail, Kenneth Kay (who also directed the production), Kim Cozort (who had a range to play from Young George to Mrs. Bailey to Janie), Christine DiMattei (who took on a few kid roles, too, Pete to Zuzu) and the very versatile and rich, radio-voiced Dan Leonard as Joseph, Gower, Pop, Crotchety Old Man, cranky old man Potter, and a guy who says, “I got doctor bills to pay.”
But it was Daniel Eilola as the sound effects engineer and Rachel Reizburg as the sound effects assistant who had the most work to do to pull off making this true nostalgia — everything from creating the sounds of car door closing to a screen door slam (a full-size car door and screen door were mounted on the Arts Garage stage for full effect). Reizburg walked in cowboy boots on a small square of wood with a microphone at her feet to simulate George shuffling down the street, and Daniel swished a mop in a bucket of water and turned the crank on a wind machine for the familiar scene when George contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge.
The audience was requested to get in on the act, too. Intermittently, signs were held up to signal cues: Bar crowd noises, angry crowd when the stock market crashes, say Hooray!, laugh, applaud. Yes, folks, radio theater is interactive theater.
The actors (many of them familiar faces from SoFla shows) played it straight, concentrating on the material, and never giving any indication of a further back story. They read from the radio play scripts in front of antique looking microphones, creating nuance through voice inflection since the radio audience is only supposed to be hearing them, not seeing them. Since theater-goers were expected to be the in-studio audience, perhaps there would have been another layer for us? Some rivalry among the radio actors? Someone stewing because they really wanted the part of Mary but was cast as Mrs. Bailey’s instead? Besides the thrill of seeing the sound effects and the interaction, the studio audience pretty much got the same “show” as the radio audience would have.
Well, no matter, this is pure sugar cane, a fireplace chat story that remains timeless through the ages. And when the cue came up to cheer “Hooray!,” the audience gave it gusto, not only because they saw the sign but because for one day, Delray Beach became Bedford Falls, and creativity remains alive and well with Radio Theater at Arts Garage.
There is more radio theater to come with performances of classic film adaptations, Casablanca on Feb. 5 and 6 and Sunset Boulevard on 2 and April 3, both at 7:30 p.m. The Theatre at Arts Garage, 180 NE First St., Delray Beach (north side of the parking garage). $10-$20, also reserved and premium tables for 6, $110 or $135. Call (561) 450-6357 or visit www.artsgarage.org