REVIEW: Christmas classic gets fresh frame in TheatreSquared’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

“It’s a Wonderful Life,” now on stage at TheatreSquared, imagines the holiday classic as a radio play. The show runs through Dec. 31.

Photo: Wesley Hitt / Courtesy TheatreSquared

The late great author and social commenter Kurt Vonnegut once tried to break down the essentials of telling a tale like this: “Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it,” he once said.

This is the idea behind the classic holiday tale “It’s a Wonderful Life” AND the radio play version now on stage in Fayetteville courtesy of TheatreSquared. The show runs through the end of the year at Nadine Baum Studios.

What: TheatreSquared’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”
When: Wed-Sun through Dec. 31
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $17-$47, a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: Call 479-443-5600 or visit

On the first layer is the story many of us know from Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, which starred James Stewart as the downtrodden George Bailey. The current telling of this story in a stage setting picks up many of the lines of dialogue directly from the movie.

The second of the parallel layers is the one of Jake Laurents, played in this production by Justin Walker. Laurents, like James Stewart when filming the movie version, has just returned from World War II. We watch Laurents teetering on the brink. He says he’s not ready to be in the radio show he and his colleagues are creating that evening. He shows us he’s not ready. Then he gets out of that trouble.

Laurents’ backstory comes from a tweak issued by T2 artistic director Bob Ford and the production’s director, Jeff Church, and was not part of the original adaption by Joe Landry. In T2’s telling, Laurents’ demons become George Bailey’s demons, and so forth.

Indeed, it is tricky territory navigated by the seven-person cast. Not only are they playing a character, but they are playing a character playing a character. For the benefit of the “live” audience – those of us attending the TheatreSquared production – the performers don caps and position themselves in different spots on the stage to help convey the different characters of Bedford Falls. For the fictional radio program they are airing, that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Like a crew of actors would have done for a radio show in the 1940s, the cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes sound effects to match the activities they describe. Among those featured in the production are Mischa Hutchins, left, as Mary Hatch, and Betsy Jilka, as Violet, Zuzu and others.

Photo: Wesley Hitt / Courtesy TheatreSquared

It’s not as confusing as that all seems, and that’s a credit to the actors involved. It’s a busy show, with the actors also simultaneously making the sound effects that listeners at home would have heard. Those noises include smacking a board to emulate a screen door and pushing a plunger into a bucket to mimic a water rescue. Because of the hustle and bustle of the setup, we don’t learn much about the characters playing the “It’s a Wonderful Life” characters we know.

There is some novelty in the format, but there aren’t many surprises in the action. It’s a familiar tale to those who know the movie. And the one thread that is fresh – Laurents’ return from the war – leaves more questions than it provides answers. This thread does not find resolution.

Of course, George Bailey does find his resolution, and his guardian angel Clarence (played by L.Roi Hawkins) does as well. After a first half that slowly builds the case, the greatest hits of the show pile on top of each other in the second act. The radio play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a tidy telling of the Christmastime tale.

It’s a story that everyone loves, and that no one seems to get tired of.