Friday, December 11, 2009

American Heartland Theatre: "It's A Wonderful Life"

Mention the 1940's film classic "It's a Wonderful Life" and you immediately envision happy endings, Christmas, angels, Jimmy Stewart and the sweet, simple experience of a small community.

Not to me.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is a bitter story about having your dreams shattered, being trapped, of compromising with the enemy, frustrated that friends and family get ahead and move away, living the life you dreamed. Frustration like this fills men (especially men) with rage that drives them to alcoholism, abuse, suicide. Today, George would be dead... just another casualty of the American Dream.

If you would look at Bedford Falls in 2009 you'd soon notice nothing seems to have changed from the 40s. Big Business treats people like a disposable rag as they plunder and profit for the sake of a few "stakeholders". Those few with a true concern for the disenfranchised and broken souls work with limited resources and seem to be under constant attack from the powerful. Even when caught stealing or being hypocritical, the powerful never apologize and go on Fux News to blame the victim and Obama. Remove George and we see a world starkly like the one I fear is coming soon when tea baggers and birthers reign. Yes, in the tale George wins, sort of. He doesn't defeat the evil, he just endures it one more time with the help of a few souls who are grateful.

No, I did not see a rebroadcast of the Frank Capra classic on TV or on disc, Greg and I went to the current production of "It's a Wonderful Life, A Live Radio Play" at Kansas City's best theatre venue, the American Heartland Theatre.

The whole play is pretty straight forward, a 1946 live broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life" from WDAF radio studio 4 in Kansas City. Not only a fine retelling of the familiar story, but a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of live radio. Even as the audience is settling in, the actors are on stage setting things up, talking to us (Greg was offered a cup of coffee from the studio's break room), the actors go on and off grabbing a close microphone when it is their turn to read, a pianist is on stage playing and occasionally taking a minor role. A child used to play George's children now and then sat at the break room table amusing herself quietly until summoned to read, just as she would in a live studio. The sound effects were as much fun to watch as to hear.

The cast, Ken Remmert, Tim Scott, Lauren Braton, Natalie Weaver, Kevin Albert, Colleen Grate and Michael Dragen were all excellent, with special kudos to Tim Scott and Kevin Albert for their dramatic and spot on readings of George and the evil Mr. Potter.

The stripped down reading and almost mechanical efficiency of the recreation of live radio were the catalyst for my darker experience of this tale. Remove the sights and sounds of 1940's films and the dramatic elements emerge, revealing "It's a Wonderful Life" as a cautioning tale for our time as well. At the American Heartland Theatre through December 27th.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While there is nothing shameful in being poor, it's the hopelessness and fear of the future that George would have to face anew today. Men today are unwanted, unneeded, and apparently unsuited for modern office work. Can't tell you how many interviews I've been on where I've been asked by a woman: Now tell us again: why do you want to work here?

The bank still holds everyone's money, only in 2009, George would be handing himself a $700,000 bonus for not approving a single loan!