Although some claim to watch Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life" midyear, most fans welcome it as a holiday-themed classic. The movie's story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) suddenly unable to support his family and considering drastic options resonates with people in all walks of life. Delightfully, George's guardian angel (Henry Travers) needs to earn his wings and comes to his rescue. The story is so popular, the Cygnet Theatre Company is performing its fourth annual production of "It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" in its new theater in Old Town, through Dec. 27.
Director Sean Murray said audience response to the atypical show continues to surprise him.
"I think that's because it allows the audience to use their imaginations, and this makes them feel like part of the show," he said.
The plot unfolds on a 1940s play being broadcast over the radio. The audience sees characters at a microphone rather than in front of an elaborate set. Every year, there are slight changes to the show.
This year's show features many returning actors and some new performers. Tom Andrew is back as George Bailey. He received a 2008 San Diego Critic's Circle Award for his performance.
Scott Paulson handles the old-fashioned Foley sound effects orchestra. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin returns as Mr. Potter. Veronica Murphy plays Ma Bailey, David McBean is Harry Bailey, and Tim West appears as Clarence the Angel. Melissa Fernandes returns as Violet Bick, and Amanda Sitton joins the cast as Mary Hatch.
As each actor steps back to Dec. 24, 1946, at WCYG Radio, it's clear a show of this nature must rely on its cast to produce the desired effects.
"Every time this group performs, it's from the heart," Murray said. "They really commit themselves to telling the story without any sense of parody, and I think the cast brings an amazing emotional honesty to the work."
"It's a Wonderful Life" has stood the test of time. The situations George Bailey frets over are the same concerns people are facing today. Likewise, the same optimism Clarence brought to Bedford Falls might be just around the corner, too.
"That's true," Murray said. "The back story deals with George's bank going broke. Mr. Potter believes it's every man for himself. And the scene about people losing their homes, jobs and money in the bank are things we relate to today."
The Cygnet team wants families to celebrate the holiday together and is offering a free child's ticket with every adult ticket bought.
"Kids love this play," Murray said. "Because all the little gadgets and toys used to create the sound effects fascinate them, and they are prone to using their imaginations."
Andrew said he returns each year to play George because he used to watch the movie when he was younger and found that many of the stage productions lacked heart.
"Jimmy Stewart was an amazing man, and this was one of his best roles," Andrew said. "It's a gift to do it. Even patrons who don't like the movie, love it."
"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," adapted by Joe Landry with piano accompaniment and musical direction provided by Amy Dalton, is about as close to Bedford Falls as one can get.
'It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play'
When: Through Dec. 27
Where: Cygnet Theatre Company, Old Town Stage, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego