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Preview: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ returns to Shake & Co.

We may be witnessing the early days of a new theatre tradition in the Berkshires. “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” seems perfect for us to celebrate the Holidays — now, and for years to come.

Lenox — Shakespeare & Company has searched for 20 years to find a signature holiday play. Last year, they may have found it. At least, “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” was widely acclaimed by audiences and critics, and so challenging and satisfying for the cast and the director that they all signed on for a limited engagement remount this December from the 6th through the 28th at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Remounts usually come with the inherent problems of melding old cast members with new or grappling with completely new casts or directors, but in a group interview following a rehearsal with last year’s stalwarts — Jonathan Croy, Jennie M. Jadow, David Joseph, Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Ryan Winkles, and Jenna Ware — I found everyone enthusiastic about the play itself as well as about getting together to do it again.

Jonathan Croy, Jennie M. Jadow, Sarah Jeanette Taylor and David Joseph sing a soap commercial. Photo: Kevin Sprague
Jonathan Croy, Jennie M. Jadow, Sarah Jeanette Taylor and David Joseph sing a soap commercial. Photo: Kevin Sprague

“I think the level of collaboration is so high in this version of ‘Wonderful Life’ because of the personalities of the actors themselves and the fact that they’ve all been so intimately involved in S&Co’s unique training program,” volunteered director Jenna Ware. I did a little back of the program math and found that, when combined, this youthful group represents over half a century of experience in acting, directing and teaching.

Among them, they play all 50 roles of the old Will Bailey movie classic. They sing, play musical instruments, and purposefully run around the stage from historical microphone to historical microphone. They do all the 1940’s Foley sound effects right in front of the audience — including using a wind machine, pairs of shoes resting on what looked to me like pieces of cardboard, a gigantic washtub full of water, and many other curious objects. They also become the characters playing the parts in the play within the play.

The members of the cast were so upbeat that I had to ask them point blank whether there was any downside to this remount. They looked baffled for a split second; then they all said no. Sarah Taylor had even flown in from Chicago with her new husband to play Mary Hatch/Sally Applewhite, and to do the piano accompaniment. (Taylor played Clara Schumann in “Clara” at The Mount in 2012.)

“It’s about American values,” continued Ware. “Americans believe in hard work and caring for each other. The Holidays emphasize family and community and the importance of each person to every other.”

“I’m Jewish,” Jennie Jadow said. “We don’t celebrate Christmas, but I get this play.”

In the 'radio play,' sounds effects are real -- and sometimes wet.  Photo: Kevin Sprague
In the ‘radio play,’ sounds effects are real — and sometimes wet. From left, Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Jennie M. Jadow, and Jonathan Croy. Photo: Kevin Sprague

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” combines gentle humor, wackiness, generosity of spirit and sentiment. “We know the play very well now, so we’re working on the through lines of each character,” said Ware. She pointed out that they are so concerned with authenticity that Ryan Winkles is cutting off his beard, and no one is permitted to use highlighters on their radio script props because, of course, there was no such thing as a highlighter in the 1940’s.

“We’re all working on making each other look good all the time,” added David Joseph. “I’ve never been with another company that believed in that so deeply.” Winkles smiled and nodded: “When you work that way, everyone looks good.” I’ve become accustomed to the extraordinary range of a largely resident company from play to play, but experiencing that range in one sustained performance by everyone is rare.

Patrick Brennan’s memorable set was already up, working like a well-oiled, period wristwatch, deliberately looking like slightly-organized chaos. Govane Lohbauer’s 1940’s costumes will undoubtedly be as charming and accurate as they were last year. The stage manager, Hope Rose Kelly was sitting in the front row keeping track of the time and the scenes that needed repetition. Jenna gave specific and general guidance when needed. The actors shared their own ideas and questions, and everyone seemed to be laughing, serious, and busy all at once.

Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Jennie M. Jadow and Jonathan Croy. Photo: Kevin Sprague
Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Jennie M. Jadow and Jonathan Croy. Photo: Kevin Sprague

By mission and definition, Shakespeare & Company is about enlivening classics. I left the Bernstein Theatre looking forward to opening night when I expect to spend an hour or so of joy in the world. After all, I may be witnessing the early days of a new theatre tradition in the Berkshires. “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” seems perfect for us to celebrate the Holidays — now, and for years to come.

Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 413-637-3353, online at www.shakespeare.org, or by going to the Berkshire Edge Calendar. The Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is hearing aid assisted and wheelchair accessible.

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