Golden ages of American cinema and radio overlapped in the 1930s and ’40s. But they also intersected in a way not often remembered today: radio-drama adaptations of popular films. In the long-running Lux Radio Theater series (1934-55), movie stars often voiced their screen roles, as Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did for the March 10, 1947, broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater recreates the behind-the-scenes magic of radio storytelling with a play about a fictional 1940s broadcast of the now-classic holiday tale.
It’s a Wonderful Life is LNT’s first foray into Christmas entertainment. The discontinuation of the long-running winter-solstice celebration Night Fires, says Lost Nation’s Kathleen Keenan, left a void in central Vermont’s seasonal offerings. Scheduling the play’s run for midweek (Tuesday through Thursday) minimizes its overlap with the sleigh-full of traditional Messiahs and Christmas Carols.
The stage version of Frank Capra’s iconic film keeps the focus on George Bailey’s story. “The adaptation is wonderful,” says Keenan, who is directing. “You have it in the dramatic surroundings of the radio station, but the emphasis is not on the shenanigans that go back and forth” among the actors. She finds a special resonance this year to the Depression and WWII-era themes of families and communities struggling financially and sharing sacrifices. “It’s definitely for our time,” she asserts. “Our relationships with one another, the need to take care of one another, to reach out, are the messages of the story.”
The play conjures up the edge-of-your-seat intensity of a live radio broadcast. The audience functions much as a period studio audience would have — the “stars” come out to greet them before air time, and the emcee warms them up and encourages them to cheer. Most of the performers play “at least a half a dozen characters or more,” notes Keenan. “So it’s great fun to watch actors having to turn on a dime,” using only their voices to project character traits.
But the most fun promises to be watching the Foley artist, played by Kim Ward, execute the script’s sound effects live, using the old-fashioned tools of the trade. “The Foley artist is literally the person who makes all the sounds that come from the world, whether it be somebody ringing a bell or the sound of wind or doors opening and closing,” she explains. “A lot of times you use found objects to make the noise.” Footsteps in the snow? Crunch some cornflakes. Breaking glass? Smash ribbon candy with a hammer. Train leaving the station? Rub a wire scrub brush rhythmically across a piece of wood.
How will such simple effects go over with modern audiences accustomed to high-tech movie soundtracks? Ward has performed the Foley artist role on stage before, and says theatergoers are wowed. “It becomes a novelty — it’s fresh again because nobody thinks in this way anymore. So it becomes a nice flashback to the past, which is what It’s a Wonderful Life is.”