A Supernatural Redemption
by Philip Muehe
In the selection process for directors of productions for this year, Commonweal Executive Director Hal Cropp asked me to undertake a daunting task: a radio play version of one of the most beloved and famous Christmas movies of all time—It’s a Wonderful Life. There was no doubt in my mind that the Commonweal would gather immense talent for both on and offstage roles. However, conveying this story without making a carbon copy of the film was a trepidation I had from the start.
I spoke about these concerns to fellow company member Brandt Roberts late in 2017, as I was just starting to gather my initial thoughts. At the time, I didn’t know he would end up being in the production, but he is a resident expert on all things from days gone by, especially entertainment. He mentioned how radio storytelling is essentially a dead or dying art form. It’s not something we get exposed to very often. I couldn’t help but feel a pull to my own personal favorite Christmas story, A Christmas Carol. That’s when it all clicked…ghosts. The supernatural. Divine intervention. Mere humans have always been guided throughout the ages by spirits from beyond and the idea of extending that to It’s A Wonderful Life made perfect sense. Our modern-day George (in this adaptation named Jake) would stumble into an abandoned radio station, clearly at the end of his own rope much like George is in the story. The spirits of the building then bring the station back to life where they invite him to do this play with them. Through the redemption of George Bailey, the character he is reading, Jake himself is redeemed.
My major concern with the radio play aspect was that it removed most of the stakes from the story. If the action taking place wasn’t really happening, it becomes passive. It becomes actors reciting famous lines behind microphones with sound effects. And while that carries a certain charm of its own, I didn’t want the Commonweal experience to be a passive one. I wanted this story right in the laps of the audience; to be lived fully onstage and have real consequences for the characters involved. The concept we came up with bookends the show really well, and provides an “in” for fans of the film on all levels.
Of course, once I brought this into the rehearsal room the cast helped shape it into something better than I imagined. It wasn’t always easy, but to me directing has always been about discovering things together. No one has all the answers but I do believe that as creators, finding those answers is simpler when tackled as a team. I’m thankful for this amazing group of artists who trusted me, and for our audiences who are embracing this version so warmly.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is now playing through December 22.
GET TICKETS —> Performance Calendar.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre—Jeremy.