LENOX -- In "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," playwright Joe Landry has reimagined a beloved Christmas icon -- Frank Capra's 1946 film, "It's a Wonderful Life." The result, particularly in the hands of a sublimely engaging company of actors and uncommonly smart direction at Shakespeare & Company, is utterly beguiling and enchanting.
The time is Christmas Eve, 1946; the setting a radio studio -- evocatively recreated in Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre by set designer Patrick Brennan -- where radio star Jack Halloway (David Joseph) and his ensemble, announcer / actor Lionel Harrison (Jonathan Croy), vocalists, musicians and actresses Sally Applewhite (Sarah Jeanette Taylor) and Lana Sherwood (Jennie M. Jadow), trumpeter / actor Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood, and late-arriving sound effects man Max Michaels (Michael Pfeiffer), are getting ready to broadcast before a live studio audience "The Jack Halloway Show Fireside Family Christmas," an evening of music and an adaptation of Capra's film.
Landry's conceit places Capra's film about a hard-working young man who loses faith in the worthiness of his life only to regain it on Christmas Eve within a richly imaginative context. Director Jenna Ware and her appealing cast capture the human heart of the story and offer it cleanly, without cloying.
Ware's attention to detail is particularly impressive, especially in the interplay among the members of Halloway's crew and the relationships some of that interplay suggests (watch, for example, the aftermath of an impulsive kiss between Halloway's George Bailey and Taylor's Mary).
Joseph's George Bailey is an endearing blend of boyishness, naivete, anger, resentment, frustration, generosity of spirit and an abiding faith in the American spirit. Joseph is flawlessly matched by Taylor's feisty, forward, wily and loving Mary. Joseph's Halloway sings several Christmas chestnuts -- some solo, some with others -- with a style that is as complex and expressive as it is simple and crystalline.
Croy, Jadow and Winkles complete this ensemble -- and ensemble is the operative word -- with style, grace and extraordinary resourcefulness.
The result is an "It's a Wonderful Life" that feels fresh, newly minted; at the very least rejuvenated and very much alive. In the very best tradition of theater, Ware's production invites, indeed draws us in by catching and holding our imagination.
This is no mere exercise in nostalgia. This is comfort food for the heart and for the soul.