Clarence Brown Stages a Live Performance of a Fictional Radio Broadcast of 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Naturally, you have to wonder why. Maybe the most-watched black-and-white movie today, It's a Wonderful Life was the first movie ever available on home video, and still gets shown on network TV. If you don't get enough of it at home, the original movie was shown twice this past weekend at the Tennessee Theatre. Most of us can recite dialogue.

And the University of Tennessee is inviting us to watch a "radio play" version of it: that is, without Donna Reed hiding naked in the bushes. Or her and Jimmy Stewart blithely plummeting into the swimming pool. It might seem the most extreme example of Clarence Brown Theatre's heavily movie-based season.

Moreover, it's the American version of CBT's other offering, A Christmas Carol. Picture a distracted businessman who's lost faith, but who's saved, at Christmastime, by one or more supernatural visitors who show him his own life, and the lack of it, emphasizing how he has, or could, make a difference in the lives of others. There are two plays like that, and they're both being performed on the same college plaza, simultaneously. Maybe Christmas is no time for surprises.

It might seem a challenge to recommend It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, but I mean to try.

First, a chronic pet peeve. The posters say "Adapted by Joe Landry." Who is Joe Landry? Is this a real script, from a 1940s radio show? Or is it a retro interpretation? Who wrote the dialogue? The 40-page program offers no clues. It does offer four solid pages cut-and-pasted from IMDB trivia, some of it perhaps true, concerning the Frank Capra movie.

As it happens, it's indeed a latter-day interpretation by Landry, a young artist-playwright with a particular interest in retro cinema, in Connecticut, his home, in 1997. It has since become a holiday standard in some parts of the country, including Chicago, where this production's director, Bill Jenkins, chair of Ball State's theater department, has done a lot of work.

Its one scene is the posh New York studio of WBFR, "The Playhouse of the Air." (The real WBFR is a religious station in Birmingham, but never mind.) Lush and sumptuous by radio standards, the CBT's set and costumes out-'40s the '40s. The attention to visual detail might seem contrary to the radio-show premise, except that a sub-premise is that it's a radio show for a studio audience. Few radio shows were ever this dapper. This looks like a party of elegant sophisticates in a comfortable suburban parlor. Was there ever a live-audience radio play in which the actors sat in plush chairs and drank highballs on stage?

Those who aren't familiar with local talents like David Brian Alley might assume that, when he's introduced, his name is Jake Laurents. In fact, Alley plays Laurents, who plays George Bailey. The audience may be confused about how to respond. We're told at first that it's important to applaud for the radio audience, but we, the real audience, know there's no radio audience. If we applaud every time they tell us to, are we rubes?

No need for the usual synopsis here, or the obligatory "heartwarming family fare" or "drama about a suicidal small-town banker." The play comes almost verbatim from the familiar screenplay, which raises further questions about why the writers of these lines are unmentioned in the program.

The interpretation is the main thing. Five actors, including the announcer, read—or pretend to read—from scripts. The announcer, Chicago actor Frank D. Nall, is perfect, maybe more so when he flubbed a few lines in one dim-lit scene. But D.B. Alley gave the famous speech to the panicked investors sans script, breaking the premise to powerful effect.

With or without scripts, it's impressive acting all around, as each of the five actors portray multiple characters, sometimes in rapid succession—plus the characters of the suavely hammy radio actors themselves. Alley's Bailey wears a subtle suggestion of Jimmy Stewart, without sounding like an impersonation.

Some scenes work better than others. It's odd to see Zuzu's petals, but not Zuzu. You might, at times, be tempted to close your eyes and follow the actual story. But you know the actual story. The spectacle of this production is what holds your attention.

Well-sung radio-style jingles for local sponsors Sunspot and real-estate agent Judi Starliper (did tofu or the word "Judi" exist in 1946?) are high points. I kept hoping they wouldn't play Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." Since the 1970s, it's been mandatory in all drama that even mentions the '40s, regardless of what part of the decade they're interpreting. Of course they did. Just a little bit of it.

It's probably better than the actual, contemporary radio adaptations of that movie, even those that employed Jimmy Stewart himself. Blockbuster-movie radio interpretations of the 1940s typically offered choppy kindergarten versions of screenplays, designed to fit a 90-minute story in a 30-minute space, with commercials. This is a 90-minute version of a 90-minute story.

It's an effectively done play. You can tell effective in the Carousel, because you can look other audience members in the face. Grown men wipe their eyes.

It's a spirited new way to look at a classic. They ought to put it on the radio.