Backstage Blog

Revisiting “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”

Veronica Murphy and Tom Andrew

Veronica Murphy and Tom Andrew. Photo by Randy Rovang

Our theatre is presenting a 1940′s radio version of the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. We all know the movie. I remember the first time I saw the movie. In the olden days, before you could buy the video or dvd or see a movie on television, one of the ways to see an old classic was to catch it at a movie theatre that showed revivals. In San Diego when I was a kid, this theatre was the Ken Cinema in Kensington.

I was a freshman at San Diego State University at the time, and my best friend, Russell and I decided to go see It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas time. Neither of us had actually heard of it before, believe it or not. This was well before the Wonderful Life TV blitz when you could not turn on the TV without seeing it on every channel. So, for me and Russell, this was a new movie.

Here’s what I remember: being so totally swept up in the film and all of those beautiful citizens of Bedford Falls that I actually forgot I was at a theatre watching a movie. The people around me disappeared. Russell disappeared. My popcorn disappeared. We had no idea that there was going to be an angel or the redemption of the average man. The existential journey of George Bailey took me totally by surprise. By the time the friends came pouring in at the end of the movie, I was as wrecked as I had ever been. Total tears. No, not tears. Sobs. Aching, side holding sobbing. The theatre’s house lights came up and I was jolted back to my own reality: I was not there in the Bailey living room celebrating life and family, but sitting in one of the Ken’s then-famously uncomfortable seats, sobbing and gulping and blinking tears out my dazed eyes. Okay, I was eighteen. I hadn’t had a lot of experiences yet. It’s kind of sweet in retrospect.

I turned around realizing where I was, and Russell, who was sitting next to me was far worse than me! Whereas I had started to come back to earth, he was inconsolable. He couldn’t get up. He was crying to hard, that we had to wait until the theatre emptied before we could leave. Only now, we are laughing through our crying because we begin to realize that it was, after all, just a movie, you know?

I STILL cry at that movie. The tears seem to come at different things as I get older and life’s journey becomes more clear, if it ever actually does become clear. I’ll let you know when I get closer towards the curtain call.

In the meantime, the story stirs up thoughts about life choices, career paths, how the smallest connection can be a turning point without your even knowing it. It raises questions about whether we’re all following a predestined path, or wandering alone blindly forward. Are all of those small turning points lined up for us in advance, or do we alter the predestined path every time we make a choice between two things? Are there infinite predetermined life paths, each completely valid? Or ultimately one life journey with all of our “choices” already made for us?

As long as we recognize the value of each person in our life and their contribution to shaping what we are, we also have to recognize our power over other people’s lives and how our contacts, no matter how small, can change their lives too. All of this is karmic, isn’t it? It’s A Wonderful Life celebrates how interconnected we are all, and that we are truly not alone in this world. We are surrounded by what we create, we ARE what we create, so create something you can be proud of!

I didn’t mean to get so… blah blah blah with this. I was going to write about working on the story as a play and working with wonderful actors to get all of these feelings to happen live on stage. But it brings out the romantic in me.

I love to watch the actors take the journey every time they do it. I never tire of the show. It starts as such a sweet show with its soda fountains, snow sledding, and dreamers. The darker questions in the story seems to come up from behind us while we’re not looking and without realizing it we are suddenly addressing the horrifying notion of non-existence: To be a complete void. No mother. No family. No identity. Nothing.

Tom Andrew, who has played George since our first production, takes this journey with his whole body and soul every night! I admire him so much for the depth of emotion that he shares in telling George Bailey’s story. And all of the other actors in the company, Jonathan Dun-Rankin, Veronica Murphy, Tim West, David McBean, Melissa Fernandes and Amanda Sitton bring each and every one of these rich characters to life as if they were a company of thirty. With the live sound effects provided by Scott Paulson and musical direction and accompaniment by Amy Dalton, this show has become very special to us and to our audience.

It’s A Wonderful Life is such a beautiful story to touch base with every year. It’s a great reminder for us to keep in mind that every tiny choice we make or contact we have with another human has giant consequences for us all. We are all interconnected. It is a wonderful life.