Owens presents touring production of classic holiday filmWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Shortly after “It’s a Wonderful Life” debuted on the big screen in 1946, it began to be adapted into other media, the first being a radio production. It was a practice that is unheard of today — many of the same actors who appeared in the film would gather in a studio and perform, live, a version of the whole movie released in theaters.
“Wonderful Life’s” first production on the airwaves would be far from its last. Nostalgia for radio days gone by and the film’s growing reputation as a holiday classic have led to many more versions of the story being performed in audio form.
“The very first time anybody did it was, of course, shortly after the movie came out in the ’40s,” said writer/actor/director Willie Repoley in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “The Lux Radio Theater did a radio broadcast with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. And there have been a number of different radio adaptations ever since. Especially in the ’80s and ’90s, there seems to have been a sort of renaissance of radio versions.”
Repoley is a producing director at the Immediate Theatre Project (ITP), a young drama company out of Asheville, N.C. A few years back, an idea arose to stage a production of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” performing one of the radio adaptations live onstage — giving the audience the feeling of watching a classic audio drama being performed. But Repoley was somewhat nonplussed by the results.
“I always was left with the question, well, why is this being done as a radio play, other than the fact that it’s kinda cool, and it’s fun for the audience and fun for the actors — which are great reasons. But I kinda felt like something was missing,” he said.
He began writing a new version, tinkering with the concept and building on the idea of the show’s limited cast (the production featured only four actors, as it does to this day).
“That’s why I started thinking of the idea of, let’s make this a story about a radio station. And then, the radio station is performing ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ So, the audience gets sort of a double insight into the story. You get the story of Bedford Falls and everything you know from the movie, but through the little bit of a filter of the struggling radio station that’s trying to stay on the air,” Repoley said.
The resulting show — the full title is “Live from WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life” — has been a remarkable success for Repoley and ITP. In addition to performances at their home stage in Asheville, several touring productions of the show have been met with tremendous response. The latest version will arrive at Owens Community College for a one-night-only performance at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14.
Drawn into two stories
In this new version, Repoley’s script tells the tale of a skeleton crew of actors, forced to perform a version of the classic tale without most of their regular cast, who are unable to reach the station because of a snowstorm.
“So, the audience gets kinda drawn into two stories at the same time,” Repoley said. “And so that excited me, as a new take on an old story that still honored everything everybody remembered about the old story, but did it in an exciting and new way that I think this radio adaptation allows for.”
Of course, there are certain difficulties to face when a production recreates a story as beloved as “Wonderful Life.”
“It’s sort of a real challenge not to go back and look at the movie every five seconds. I really tried not to look at the movie at all, because in a way we can never recreate the movie. That is its own special thing that I don’t wanna mess with,” Repoley said.
This will be the first year in the history of the production that Repoley will not be portraying George Bailey — now that he’s taken the director’s mantle, actor Catori Swann stepped into the role. Of course, both men now know what a task it is filling some of the biggest shoes possible: Those of the late, great Jimmy Stewart.
“It’s always a challenge — you cannot out-Jimmy-Stewart Jimmy Stewart,” Repoley said. “He is the icon of that role, you cannot take that away from him. So you have to find a way in that figures, well, what worked about him in that role — some sort of generosity, some sort of earnestness — and how do we make our own take on that?”
“One of the nicest things people would say to me after the show was, ‘Oh, that sounded just like Jimmy Stewart’ — which I know it didn’t. I mean, I’m absolutely positive it didn’t,” he said with a laugh. “But what they meant was, you found something that reminded me of that same spirit of generosity.”
Learning from challenges
Not being a part of this year’s touring company means Repoley will get to spend the holidays with his family for the first time in three years, but his ties to the show — professionally and emotionally — remain as strong as ever now that he’s changed roles.
“It’s definitely been a little bit of a challenge. What I’ve been surprised by, actually, is how much I’ve learned about the show directing it — I mean, things I didn’t know about it even as a writer or an actor,” he said. “Sort of getting that director’s perspective of everything from the outside, seeing how these four actors work.
“Every year the cast is a little bit different, and they each bring something of their own to the material. So, there’s always something new for those of us working on it … I have to make sure that I find what these actors are doing, and build on what they’re doing — not try and make it into something that it was in the past. That’s never interesting to an audience.”
Reflections of the economy
Repoley noted how the more years the production tours, and the more people see it, the more relevant it feels, especially given the current state of the economy.
“What’s really gratifying to me is people coming and watching the play, and feeling like it still matters. Not because it’s a piece of holiday nostalgia, although it is that, but that it really matters on a personal level right now. And not just economically — ultimately, I think it’s a story about what happens when our safety net is taken away from us. What happens when everything that we’ve been building toward our entire lives is suddenly gone?”
He paused in thought. “I think the answer George has to come to, and what we come to together as an audience, is what’s left behind is each other. It’s our relationships, it’s our friends, our family. And maybe we’ve been a little too much like Mr. Potter, and we don’t have any close relationships. Maybe we’ve been a little more like George Bailey and we discover that our lives really do have meaning, because of the way we’ve lived them.
“And to see an audience responding to that, to me, is the most rewarding thing.”
“Live from WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life” will be performed on Owens Community College’s Mainstage Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14. Tickets are $20. For ticket information, contact the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at (567) 661-2787.