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It's a Wonderful Life ushers in Christmas season

George Bailey, his supportive wife Mary and the whole earnest gang from Bedford Falls are once again helping usher in the Christmas season at The Matchbox in Red Deer with some laughs — and even some tears.

George Bailey, his supportive wife Mary and the whole earnest gang from Bedford Falls are once again helping usher in the Christmas season at The Matchbox in Red Deer with some laughs — and even some tears.

Ignition Theatre is staging an entertaining radio play version of the popular Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life for the second year running. And the live stage show that opened to a nearly full-house crowd on Thursday night involves a group of talented local actors pretending to be radio actors from the 1940s, pretending to be the good folks of Bedford Falls.

While radio plays require a stagnant format — this time the performers are standing in front of mikes in an auditorium instead of a radio station setting — the impact on an audience is interesting. All the story images form in your mind, leaving you paying more attention to the script.

With the entire focus on what’s being said, even rabid fans of the film will undoubtedly catch something new in this heartwarming stage version, directed as an Ignition Theatre fundraiser by Jeremy Robinson.

For instance, It’s a Wonderful Life is littered with quaint homilies that are easily missed when one is distracted by the film’s quick back-and-forth banter. I finally heard during Thursday’s performance the angel-in-training Clarence deliver lines such as: “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread about the Earth, but man doesn’t see it.” And “It’s easier to want what you have than get what you want.”

These aren’t shiny pearls of wisdom, but it’s still good to hear all the dialogue after all these years.

Clarence, in this stage version that was adapted from the screenplay by Tony Palermo, is played by Matt Grue, who well captures the character’s simple, child-like spirit and eagerness to help George realize his life is worth living.

George is full of thwarted dreams, and becomes suicidal after discovering that $8,000 is missing from his savings and loan company. When he wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what his community would look like if he never existed.

George is once again played by Ryan Mattila, who sometimes appeared to be drawing on Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of the character. While always empathetic, Mattila does better when down-playing the 1940s style glibness and emotionally connecting with the material — such as he does in a scene when George has a heart-to-heart with his father (well played by Derek Olinek) and when George and Mary are leaving the school dance in borrowed clothing and first realize their mutual attraction.

Chantel Hutchison depicts a Mary that’s playful and coy, but less perpetually sweet than Donna Reed’s portrayal. Hutchison’s Mary isn’t afraid to bark at her mother to lay off when pressed to pick up the telephone during George’s visit. Somehow it humanizes the character, who has a lovely scene with George when the two huddle together to listen from one phone receiver.

Paul Boultbee also played the villainous Henry Potter last year, but seems to have made him oilier and more repulsive for this production. His Mr. Potter positively drips odiousness — so much so that you don’t want George to shake his hand, thinking he’d have to later wash with sanitizer.

Sure, the performance is a bit over the top, but it works just fine, since director Robinson aimed for a darker retelling of the story.

The one quibble I had was the play’s length — with two 20-minute intermissions, it’s almost two and a half hours long. But there wasn’t really a dull moment, thanks to a cast that delivered many intriguing voices.

Everyone in this production did a stellar job, including Dale Latham, Michael and Paul Sutherland, Debby Allan, Matt Dale, Ava Shannon, Chantal Vaage, Jaime and Carla Falk, Wyatt Garrett, and Greg Shannon as the radio announcer.

Of course, no radio play could be a success without a sound-effects person and Dustin Clark was terrific — particularly when performing his original jingles for sponsors.

It’s a Wonderful Life wouldn’t have made it into the 21st century if its message — that no man who has friends is a failure — didn’t still resonate in this Facebook culture. Therefore, it wouldn’t hurt to turn off all electronic devices, including TVs, computers and BlackBerrys, and come on down to the Matchbox for some face time with an engaging set of familiar characters. The production continues to Dec. 18.