Wonderful Life staged with a darker edge

It’s a Wonderful Life is often thought of as a feel-good Christmas film when it actually plumbs some pretty dark depths, said Jeremy Robinson, who’s directing this year’s radio-play stage version for Ignition Theatre.

Matt Grue

Matt Grue

It’s a Wonderful Life is often thought of as a feel-good Christmas film when it actually plumbs some pretty dark depths, said Jeremy Robinson, who’s directing this year’s radio-play stage version for Ignition Theatre.

The hero, George Bailey, feels he’s a failure and contemplates suicide, only to find hope and redemption at the very end, said Robinson. He roughly compares this plot trajectory to that of another seasonal favorite, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Both stories feature characters who have to go through nightmarish experiences to discover what’s really important — relationships with family and friends.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George despairs after $8,000 disappears from his savings and loan company. When he stands at a bridge railing, wishing he’d never been born, guardian angel-in-training Clarence gives George a chance to see what his community would look like if he had never existed.

Although the 1946 movie was nominated for five Oscars without winning any, and was deemed a box-office disappointment at the time, it has since been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. According to Wikipedia, it also placed No. 1 on their list of most inspirational American movies.

Robinson is a big fan of the Frank Capra film. “It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I watch it every year,” said the former Red Deer College Theatre Studies student, whose radio-play version opens Thursday, Dec. 9 at The Matchbox in Red Deer.

In fact, he feels James Stewart’s performance — which departs from the cornball 1940s style of acting to depict more realistic desperation and vulnerability in George — was what first drew him to the world of theatre.

This is the first time that Robinson, who played Clarence in last year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Drama, is directing a full-length production. And it’s the second year that Ignition Theatre is staging this radio play, which was adapted for the stage by Tony Palermo from a screenplay by Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, and Billy Wilder. The company hopes that local residents will make it a seasonal event, like watching The Nutcracker.

But those who saw the 2009 version will be in for a few surprises this time around.

Robinson said the setting is not a radio station, but an auditorium stage, where touring actors from the 1940s will deliver their lines in front of microphones. They will be dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, as if performing for a live audience of the day.

This year’s version will also be darker and more realistic in tone, said Robinson, who took out some of the scripted hokey-ness.

For instance, he said goodbye to Jimmy the Parrot, who would squawk on cue during pivotal scenes that are supposed to unfold in the Bailey Savings and Loan. “It was a bit much. We’d be doing these important scenes and there’d be this squawk and you’d lose some of the drama, so we cut the bird out,” he said.

Some characters also had to lose some of the period perkiness they displayed last year and dig a little deeper for heartfelt emotions to various situations — such as the deepening feelings between George and his wife-to-be Mary.

Several actors from this cast of 15 are returning from last year, including Ryan Mattila as George and Paul Boultbee as the villainous Mr. Potter. But this year’s Mary will be played by Chantel Hutchison and Clarence by Ignition Theatre’s artistic director Matt Grue.

Robinson finds it interesting that George almost takes his own life over the missing $8,000 — yet there’s scant mention of the money or what happened to it when the play ends and all the characters’ thoughts have turned to fellowship and cheer.

One of the reasons the story remains relevant is its universal messages about the richness of friendships and the hollowness of commerce, said Robinson. “There’s a line in the play, I think that Uncle Billy says: ‘Who would have thought that you couldn’t trust a bank?’

“They were saying that in the 1940s, but we can totally relate to it today,” added the director, referring to the global recession that’s been blamed, in part, on a credit crunch caused by a greedy banking industry.

Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. shows are $22 ($18 students/seniors) from The Matchbox box office. Group rates are available. It’s a Wonderful Life runs Dec. 9-11, 14-18, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 12.