An all-American fairy tale for the holidays: “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Bucks County Playhouse

(L to R) Brandon Ellis, Garth Kravits, Whitney Bashor, Wayne Wilcox, Maggie Lakis, and Kevin Pariseau (Photo: Mandee Kuenzle)

(L to R) Brandon Ellis, Garth Kravits, Whitney Bashor, Wayne Wilcox, Maggie Lakis, and Kevin Pariseau (Photo: Mandee Kuenzle)

By John Dwyer

Allow me to take you back to a time when families sat down to dinner together, and children played in the snow. When Christmas trees were aglow with different colored bulbs on a real tree, and not an assembled piece of plastic with minescule twinkle bulbs. Back to a time when movies and plays and books reminded America about its ideals, its aspirations, and a true spirit of good will toward men.

This was a time when there were “George Baileys” in the world. And when I say the iconic name “George Bailey,” we know whom I mean — the main character from the classic American film “It’s a Wonderful Life” –arguably the most beloved Christmas film of all time. It is one of the great works of Frank Capra, with a remarkable performance by Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, and Donna Reed as his wife, Mary.

When stories are as well-known as this, and the characters so defined by their original actor, it is difficult to write and then perform the piece. I mentioned this in my review of “Rat Pack.” There is a burden of expectation that exists when dealing with familiar stories or ones that were so strongly defined by previous telling. But luckily for us, this show has an incredible cast and a director who is earning a reputation with audiences for being so good that you can depend on seeing a quality production if Hunter Foster is at the helm.

The tale originated as a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” that the author Philip Van Doren Stern wrote after having a dream. He originally sent it out as part of a 25-page Christmas card to family and friends. RKO purchased the rights to it for $10,000, and released the film Dec. 25, 1946.

The plot involves a regular guy, George Bailey, who lives in a regular small town, Bedford Falls. He marries a good girl Mary and has 3 kids. He has big dreams, but they get put on the back burner due to devotion to friends and family. The play opens with him on the brink of suicide and his guardian angel Clarence is being given a synopsis of George’s life before he goes down to save him. His salvation, as we all know, is when he is shown what would have happened if he had never been born. The world was obvious a lesser place without the extraordinarily ordinary George Bailey.

The story line is wonderful, and has the added twist of being done as a radio play. Our real live actors are playing actors from the late 1940s who are broadcasting this Christmas tale live from a radio station in Doylestown. As was the case back when, for example, Lux Radio Theater (1934-1955) was on the air, we have a sound effects man to provide doors slamming and other sounds, and the six individual actors play multiple roles. This provides us with the ability to see fine actors at their craft and the agility that they have to switch character, motivation, and voice in a heartbeat. This is what the theater audiences love. The timing needs to be precise and the acting skillful, and what is created is a unique theatrical experience that cannot be found in another format.

Wayne Allan Wilcox plays the radio actor Jake Laurents, who plays George Bailey.  His is a nuanced performance that captures the genuine, erstwhile, trusting all-around good guy, which we know George Bailey to be. Whitney Bashor plays radio actress Sally Applewhite, as his wife Mary. She is the perfect girl next door for George — sweet, smart, sassy and perky, and loving him with all her heart. These two actors playing actors are doing those two roles exclusively. Brandon Ellis, Maggie Lakis and Kevin Pariseau, the latter also serving as musical director, handle all other roles.

It is truly amazing to watch these talented individuals as they jump from one character to another, with one actor at times having conversations between two different people they are playing. Yes, they are talking to themselves, and they are not schizoid, but just amazing performers at the top of their craft.

As this is a holiday show, Christmas songs are sung at the beginning and end of the show, and interspersed throughout are deliciously funny commercials with jingles, hawking items as diverse as deodorant and bananas.     There is a piano onstage to help with accompaniment when needed, and Kevin Pariseau does an excellent job at keeping the entire crew musically top drawer.

The show is riveting due to the excellence of the actors. Yes, we all know the tale, but we do not know how it will be presented in this format. And, above all, the authenticity of the characters that are finely drawn by this ensemble, pull you in emotionally. You deeply care about all these people, from George Bailey to his little girl Zuzu. With the exception of the hardhearted Mr. Potter, these are the characters that represent America at its best and warm our hearts.

Some interesting fun facts about the movie: 1) It was written for the screen, in part, by Bucks County’s own, Dorothy Parker, 2) We are seeing it performed at the Bucks County Playhouse this year during a heat wave, and it was originally filmed during a heat wave in Los Angeles, 3) Bedford Falls was one of the most elaborate sets ever built in Hollywood up until 1946 — the radio play we are seeing shows the greatness of the script, as it is not dependent on that, 4) George Bailey was originally supposed to have been played by Cary Grant, 6) This was Donna Reed’s first starring role, and 7) Zuzu did not see the movie until 1980.

But you should see this wonderful play soon — it only runs until Dec. 27 — so you can experience again a story that makes you proud to be an average Joe in an average town in an exceptional country.

Tickets are available online, or call (215) 862-2121.

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