By Patrick O’Brien
In seasonal theater, a little overlap in programming isn’t unheard of. A couple Christmas Carols; a Nutcracker or two; a truckload of spoofs on those old chestnuts. These may tell the same stories, sure, or even tell them in similar ways What happens when two companies do the exact same script?
Case in point: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play is not only a wintertime draw at American Blues in the city proper, but up north a-ways, too, in Glenview, at the cozy storefront Oil Lamp Theater.
Same gist: that classic screenplay brought to life with just a handful of actors — several returning from previous go-arounds — some mics on stands, somebody doing the sound effects, and the occasional advertisements and goodwill messages.
Ever-so-slightly different tacks, and here, comparisons become inevitable. There’s far less preamble in Glenview, so none of that “When the applause sign lights up, you know what to do” stuff. Also, there’s something just right about actually setting the show in a bona fide radio station rather than miles of red velvet and tinsel. In a way, this is much appreciated. Keith Gerth’s direction is assured in this way, that the extraordinary can spring from ordinary surroundings.
There are some quibbles, though, and it’s unclear if these are quibbles with direction or Joe Landry’s adaptation. (American Blues started out with Landry, but have since been doing their own version.) The meta angle — the actors playing actors with such delightfully 1940s names as Harry Heywood and Bud Collyer — doesn’t really amount to much. Scenes are also semi-blocked, and not just to coordinate movement around the mics; people move around the stage like one would usually see in a play. It breaks things up visually and puts a little more energy into the actors than sheer vocal inflection can conjure, but it ultimately doesn’t make too much sense in a studio setting.
It’s not overly distracting, however. Inaccuracy be damned, it does allow for memorable performances, and the plight of George Bailey and his eleventh-hour revelation is still affecting, immortally so. Danny Ferenczi (the understudy for that part) provides a solid before-and-after to make his change more affecting. He’s a grateful man, but an unhappy one — no thanks to a particularly ogre-like banker Potter (Tim Kough) — and then one day, it simply becomes too much. Thankfully, he has Travis Monroe Neese as his charmingly fumbling guardian angel Clarence to show him the light.
The women in George’s life — again, either through direction or script, unsure — feel somewhat much more assured and vivid. Chelsea Rolfes is a Mary you can build a household on, and Rachel Whyte makes an impression as the blue Violet.
It’s a very intimate production — it could honestly fit in someone’s living room without being overwhelming, much like an old-timey radio show, come to think of it. Where authenticity may be Blues’s calling card, getting up close and personal may just be Oil Lamp’s. Nostalgia or coming together; on Christmas, can’t go wrong either way.
“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play” runs through December 30 at Oil Lamp Theater, 1723 Glenview Rd, Glenview, IL 60025. More information and tickets are available here.