LENOX -- The Brits have given us Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Hollywood has given us Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."
In the former a cold, unforgiving man in Victorian London finds redemption and renewal through the Christmas Eve visits of three spirits. In the latter a decent, good-hearted man in Bedford Falls, a small post-World War II town in upstate New York, loses belief in the worth of his life until, on the verge of suicide on Christmas Eve, he finds renewed faith and purpose thanks to an angel on a mission.
"In many ways, ('It's a Wonderful Life') is an American ‘Christmas Carol,' " says Jonathan Croy, who is appearing in a live radio play version of the much-beloved 1946 film opening Saturday evening at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre following a 7:30 preview tonight. This is Shakespeare & Company's second-go-round with a radio play. The first was in the fall of 2011 when the company recreated Orson Welles' historic 1938 Halloween Eve Mercury Theatre broadcast of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" that terrified a nation into believing it was being invaded by space aliens.
The mood this time around is much more benign and sentimental. Adapted by Joe Landry from the original screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hacket, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling, "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" recreates "Lux Radio Theatre," a radio series that ran from mid-1935 through mid-1955 in which Hollywood stars performed in truncated adaptations of popular Hollywood movies.
Here, five actors -- Croy, David Joseph, Sarah Jeanette Taylor, Jennie M. Jadow and Ryan Winkles -- play the film's 50 or so characters with Joseph as George Bailey, the role created by James Stewart, and Taylor as his wife, Mary, played on screen by Donna Reed.
From the moment audiences enter the Bernstein lobby the idea, say Croy and the show's director, Jenna Ware, is to evoke the spirit of the time -- a winter evening in 1946 -- and place -- a radio studio and its lobby.
"It's one of my favorite films," Croy said in an interview with Ware and other cast members during a rehearsal lunch break backstage at the Bernstein, "but until we began working on this script the obvious never occurred to me -- that this comes right out of World War II. The country was still very much in war mode; recovery; rebuilding. Capra wanted to celebrate American values."
A radio play, Ware acknowledges, carries particular demands and conventions, chief among them having the actors hold scripts in hand ("The actors have memorized their lines," Ware noted) and working around the absence of all the physical details and action a conventional play requires.
"Joe has provided a wonderful framework," Ware said, agreeing with Croy that Landry tells the story well. "He's put in a lot of signposts; suggestions of ways to adapt situations to a variety of theatrical approaches."
Perhaps the biggest challenge is taking on such an iconic work in the first place. Few actors have been as closely associated with a film character as has James Stewart with George Bailey. For Joseph, it may be an issue more for audiences than for him. He's never seen "It's a Wonderful Life" and Ware has made sure things stay that way until their show ends its run on Dec. 29.
"I did forbid David from seeing the film," Ware said unashamedly. "He was so ideal at auditions. He understands the story. I am far more interested in what he can bring to the role with his own personality and skills."
"It does make me a bit nervous to be playing such an iconic role," Joseph acknowledged, "but I feel i am in such good hands with Jenna and the rest of the cast."
(By sheer coincidence, the movie is being shown Dec. 22 at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington).
"It's not unlike picking up a Shakespeare role that's been played by a notable actor," said Croy who is playing, among other roles, the snarling, mean-spirited businessman, Potter, portrayed memorably in the movie by Lionel Barrymore. "You take from it whatever that actor found in the role and you find in it what's true for you."
From Ware's directorial point of view, "it's just second nature to be working with something I know," she said. "The key is to leave room for people's imagination."