The phenomenon of performing a radio-style adaptation of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an outgrowth of television stations having lost the rights to show the film regularly at Christmastime, as was once the case ad nauseum, and PBS stations started to do televised-radio-broadcast versions instead back in the early 1990s during holiday pledge drives. The American Theatre Company incarnation that the company has been presenting for five years now is as good a version as you are likely to encounter, even expanding the hour-long original 1947 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast with James Stewart and Donna Reed into a fast-moving, ninety-minute version that includes more of the plotline of the two-hour-plus film. This interactive experience has the cast greeting you with a lively sing-along of seasonal songs and even offering you milk and cookies at the show’s end. In between, the audience plays the studio audience of a 1940s radio broadcast of the script, complete with live on-spot sound effects and commercials that tie into the plotline. For such a minimalist experience, it is surprising how effective it is, though undoubtedly it is the over-familiarity that most of us have with every line of the movie that makes it work. With the notable exception of John Möhrlein’s dead-on and virtually hissable Lionel Barrymore as Potter impersonation, most portrayals have been freshly and effectively rethought. Unlike the more upbeat musical version over at Porchlight, this version is not afraid to get really dark and bleak and James Leaming’s George Bailey gets so hopeless and desperate that we really believe that he is about to cash in his chips. (Dennis Polkow)
At American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, (773)409-4125. This production is now closed.