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December 11, 2008
©The Northern Virginia Daily

On the radio: WLT stages holiday favorite -- with a twist


Dennis Grundman/Daily Doug Saffell as Mr. Potter and Rich Adams as George Baily in "It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play"

By Josette Keelor -- Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER -- As Winchester Little Theatre prepares to perform its holiday production, "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," it reaches out to more valley residents than ever before.

Doug Saffell, as Mr. Potter, and Rich Adema, as George Bailey, rehearse a scene from the Winchester Little Theatre's production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." Dennis Grundman/Daily

Children in the production are, from left, Sean Markland, as Pete; Alex Swigart, as Tommy; Anne O'Donnell, as Young Violet; Maddie O'Brien, as Young Mary; and Danielle Mango, as Zuzu. Dennis Grundman/Daily

More information

"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" will be presented Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Winchester Little Theatre at 315 W. Boscawen St. The box office at WLT will be open Monday through Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. Ticket prices are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 18. For tickets or more information, call 662-3331 or visit the Web at www.wltonline.org

The success of the show over the past two years encouraged director Jerry Tracy to continue presenting it as the annual Christmas program, but this year will allow the medium of the live radio program to entertain an even wider audience -- both in the old train station theater on Boscawen Street and over the airwaves, with the hope of also attracting more interest in the performing arts.

"For us it was just about having a Christmas event, which we hadn't had [before]," Tracy says of the original choice to perform the live radio show format on stage.

Two years ago the theater chose to perform "It's a Wonderful Life" partly because it is an iconic story that most people know and cheerfully anticipate each year. It was not something that was commonly available on stage during the holidays, like "A Christmas Carol" or "A Christmas Story," says Tracy.

"It comes with every Christmas," Tracy says of the movie version, starring Jimmy Stewart. Tracy says he hopes the local production will as well.

"It really grew out of Readers' Theatre," Tracy says. The theater performs its Readers' Theatre throughout the year, emphasizing the power of the written word, as actors are allowed to read from their scripts while performing. Group auditions for Readers' Theatre are three or four times a year, and performances will be on the fourth Saturday of each month beginning in January, Tracy says.

Tracy says he has seen "It's a Wonderful Life" performed as a live radio show elsewhere with a cast of only five or six people, though the script offers 65 distinct voices. WLT has a cast of more than 20, including child actors.

"This year, unlike last year, we have kids playing kids," Tracy says. He had been forced to cast adults in the roles of children previously because he simply had not had any children audition for the show. This year, however, between 70 and 80 people showed up for auditions, adults included.

"That's a very large number for us," he says.

Many of the cast and crew are new to WLT this year.

"We like the theater, but we've never been in any productions before," says Steve Markland, who is performing with his family in this year's production.

Markland plays Peter Bailey, George Bailey's father, among other smaller roles; his wife, Reen, and younger son, Sean, are on sound effects and his older son, Scott, plays Sam Wainwright.

"It's just a fun thing to do with the family -- a new experience," Markland says.

One of his favorite movies, "It's a Wonderful Life" appeals to other cast and crew members, new and old.

John Doherty plays Clarence the Angel, who guides George Bailey along a journey through what the lives of those around him would be like if he had never been born.

"He's trying to earn his wings so he's trying very hard to help George, the main character," he says.

A retired foreign service officer, Doherty has performed in 25 plays in the last 25 years, he says.

Despite his experience in the theater, the role of Clarence is significant for him because, not only has he always loved the story of "It's a Wonderful Life," but also the character is so different from some of his former roles.

"Last season I was an old curmudgeon," he says, referring to his role in WLT's production of "Broadway Bound."

Prior to that, Doherty played a villain in "Little Family Business," a character he describes as "a fairly ugly person."

"He's probably the worst character I've ever played," Doherty says of the paranoid racist who worries that everyone around him is a communist.

"It's much easier to play an angel than a villain," he says. "It's just a wonderful, warm, sympathetic character," he says.

One of WLT's three live performances will be recorded and replayed over the radio on Winchester's 92.5 WINC-FM at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Christmas Day.

This will offer audiences a different means in which to react to the show. In the theater, they will be able to see the cast members standing behind their microphones and reading from their scripts as if they were actors performing the show in a 1940s radio studio. Members of the audience will interact with the cast and crew, who will perform all of the sound effects for the play, such as walking on Corn Flakes to simulate the sound of someone crunching on snow, or breaking glass in the bar fight scene.

Those listening at home on Dec. 25 will hear the voices and the sound effects in the same way in which someone living in the '30s or '40s might have listened to the show at home, years before the movie was released in 1946.

The recorded version will allow more people access to the production, Markland says, though he says he still hopes those interested will come to the theater.

"I think they'll still enjoy the play ... but it's just a different venue," he says of listening to it at home. "I think there's just a different appreciation."

* Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com

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