Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. The bells are ringing and angels are popping up a plenty down in historic Laurel this December as an old-fashioned medium comes back to life on the stage. Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life originated as a Radio Play and Director Michael V. Hartsfield is reviving it in all its glory at the Laurel Mill Playhouse. Following closely to a man who is about to throw away God’s greatest gift on Christmas Eve, George Bailey is given a chance to see just how many other lives his own impacts and what life would be like if he had never been born. With a riveting performance by Joseph Mariano as George Bailey; this holiday classic is sure to touch your heart and bring a tear to your eye.
The most uniquely clever thing about this particular production is the framework for it and the Christmas Commercial Jingles that are interspersed throughout the show. Director Michael V. Hartsfield creates a real live radio feel, complete with sound-effects, recording booth and over-crowded microphone placement toward the front of the stage. Broadcasting “live” from WLMP (for Laurel Mill Playhouse, of course) the production includes several jaunty jingles written and composed by Penny Martin and performed by a chorus of precocious young ladies. The jingles feature actual playhouse sponsors with all the pertinent information to shop or visit the establishments and are too precious for words. Keep your eyes on little Miss Rebekah Pase, one of the ‘commercial players’ as she twinkles and smiles her way through each jingle; a stand-out among a fine group of girls.
Having a five-person Sound Design team, headed up by Director Hartsfield, may have been what caused the delay in the sound effects. While many were clever— the boots in the snow, the doors opening and closing, the sound cues in this production (as executed from the ‘sound booth’ like it would be on a real radio play) were often a few seconds behind the dialogue and sometimes a few seconds ahead. This caused some pacing issues throughout the performance and some curious overlapping of action and sound. There were also minor pacing issues with some of the more minor characters when reading into the microphones, pauses falling between lines when they were meant to overlap one another, or overlapping in places where there were meant to be pauses, but all in all the program was enjoyable; a true holiday delight.
It was some of the more minor speaking roles that really snapped the audience to attention when they spoke, Ma Bailey (Jenifer Hollett) and Pa Bailey (Mark Allen) were the simple and honest characters that everyone remembered them to be, with Hollett turning into a bitter and guarded old woman during George’s “never born” sequence.
Hartsfield’s decision to double (and in cases triple or more) cast the voices of certain characters worked out to be a good one, in some cases a really amusing and symbolic one. Casting Joanna Cross to play both Mary Hatch and Ruth Dakin Bailey— the two women that married the Bailey boys— was a rather intelligent design, and Cross made subtle distinctions between them. As Mary Hatch, however, she was vibrant yet humble, congenial yet animated and made for the perfect wife character, pulling a sweet nostalgic homage to the movie star long gone.
Lori Bruun is quite the character whether she was being the street savvy Violet Bick or the harsh Jersey-sounding Tilly, receptionist at the Building & Loan. Bruun understands comic timing and uses it to her advantage with the Tilly character, drawing forth a good deal of laughter with her little phone conversations, making us engage with her character’s presence. The duality of character division is also brought forth by Dough Silverman playing first Mr. Gower, the confused old druggist, and later Uncle Billy, the slightly senile but good-hearted brother-in-law to the Building & Loan. Silverman has a particularly excitable voice and pumps a lively frantic energy into the Uncle Billy Character.
Clarence Oddbody (David Hale) Angel Second Class, the misfit of the angels who hasn’t got his wings; perhaps the most touching holiday character classic of the season. Hale brings a sprightly new approach to the character making him eager and naïve, while still knowledgeable of his mission. Hale has a youthful joviality about his presence that really makes Clarence enjoyable and he discovers new little nuances to uniquely crafting this character in a way that best suits the radio-performance version he’s in.
Henry F. Potter (Kirk Palchefsky) is a warped, frustrated old man that has his greedy hands on everything in Bedford Falls except the Building & Loan. Palchefsky is the epitome of ruthless; a villainous scheming old man with a grumble in his voice that would terrify even the bravest of souls. The brilliance in Palchefsky’s performance comes from his memorization of his lines. While still appearing to “read” from the radio script, it is clear that these lines come naturally to him, allowing him to focus more fully on his facial expressions and body gestures. Palchefsky unearths a darker side of Potter than the film allows as the text reveals his “revenge” on Bailey late in the show.
It is always difficult taking to the stage an iconic character, even more so when that iconic character’s primary exposure to the modern world was initially given by Jimmy Stewart. Joseph Mariano, however, does an exceptional job of creating George Bailey in this production. Mariano finds the delicate balance of paying tribute to the movie star— having brilliant moments like the line delivered with the cigar in his mouth in Potter’s office— while still creating his own interpretation of the character. Mariano’s voice is emotionally compelling and watching him unravel in the second act when he first arrives home is truly harrowing. The emotions that come flowing, not only from his voice, but across his face bring a deep meaning to George Bailey’s existence.
Mariano is a particularly animated performer; getting into the action of the script, sharing little moments with characters that make watching him that much more exciting. Leaning in to Mary Hatch when they share the phone conversation with Sam Wainwright causes a sweet romantic tension that without that gesture would otherwise be lost. Mariano is the next best thing to Jimmy Stewart that you’ll find anywhere this holiday season.
So help an angel get his wings when you make the cash bell ring and purchase your tickets to It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play at Laurel Mill Playhouse this Christmas.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission.
It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play plays through January 5, 2013 at The Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations, call the box office at (301) 617-9906.