It's only fitting that the Orlando Theatre Project should have chosen to stage its live radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life at the quaint Garden Theatre in downtown Winter Garden. A walk along the city's revivified main thoroughfare, Plant Street, reminds me of nothing less than the original 1946 film version's depiction of Bedford Falls, N.Y., the mythic American town where Everyman George Bailey found solace and redemption on a long-ago Christmas Eve.
But because the Frank Capra—directed classic, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and a large cast of recognizable screen veterans, is so well-known, and because it has been seen over and over again by so many people, the task of re-creating it in almost any form is fraught with peril. A staged version of the film appeared last season at one of our local theaters with less than appealing results, and unfortunately OTP's attempt with Joe Landry's radio script has suffered a similar fate.
Working against director Jim Howard and his cast of five is the obvious hurdle of trying to sustain interest over 90 minutes with a company that is merely reading its lines in front of stationary microphones. Theater is a kinetic, visual medium and after a short while, there is simply nothing to look at on stage other than the perfunctory creation of intermittent sound effects — squeezing a box of cornflakes to simulate walking on snow, or employing a plunger in a tub of water for the sound of Clarence the angel jumping off a bridge.
And because the players are reading lines, the inevitable result is simply subpar acting. Howard has a strong handle on producing vocal characterizations that ring true, but the rest of his cast comes across as flat and uninspired. Emotion, when there is any at all, appears forced and superficial. Perhaps the double bind of trying too hard not to sound like the film version of their counterparts, while repeating their exact lines, has tied up the cast's better instincts in ineluctable knots.
Landry's less-than-effectual playwriting skills don't help a whit. To replace missing pieces of the plot, he added dialogue covering up what can't otherwise be conveyed because the story's visual elements have been so severely compromised. The result is either pedestrian narration or the desperate sound of a stumped writer trying to extricate himself from a tricky corner.
Perhaps I'm beginning to sound too much like the misanthropic Mr. Potter, but the deep mental grooves driven into this reporter's brain by repeated viewings of the original film has created a cognitive dissonance too emphatic to be denied. Try as I might to be more charitable, while listening to OTP's uneven performance I continually found myself wanting to run home, pop in the DVD and settle back with a cup of hot cocoa. At least there I could watch the great Jimmy Stewart attempt to lasso the firstname.lastname@example.org