Since 2009, the North Side of Chicago has housed two annual, golden age of radio-style productions of "It's a Wonderful Life," a consequence of a split that took place between American Theater Company and its founding ensemble members, who re-formed American Blues Theater. When asked by readers which one they should see, my stock response has been, "Either, they're both very good."
That's still my view. But catching up with the ATC version of "It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" just the other night — I saw the American Blues production at the Biograph Theatre last year — I was newly struck by the differences that have evolved in these two shows. That's even though they both use similar scripts and, of course, are both based on the same beloved Frank Capra movie from 1946, wherein George Bailey comes to see that all our lives have a profound impact on others, however inconsequential we may feel.
Based on my experience last year, the American Blues show is a warm, inclusive and festive experience, rather like a retro cup of cocoa on a cold winter's night. Its Capra-esque characters are alive with color, and it's staged in a more comfortable venue.
The ATC version is notably starker, less sentimental, more focused and rather more dramatic. It also moves much more quickly and, although it has Foley effects, real commercials and the chance to send greetings through telegrams read "on air," there is more darkness to its soul. You can see this contrast in the physical environments — the radio studio at American Blues is filled with nostalgic charm; it's made of darker, heavier looking wood at ATC.
Under the direction of Jason W. Gerace, the acting at ATC is exceptionally fine. You have to get past Mike Nussbaum's playing a character a little more than three times his age, but, presumably, all of the 292-year-old actors in town were busy. Nussbaum's Clarence is profoundly moving, even as his Potter is foreboding.
Unlike many of the others I've seen play George, Christopher McLinden seems to understand his anger and frustration at the world best of all. Oftentimes one struggles to believe that this good-natured chap would go after Zuzu's poor teacher, but not when McLinden snaps. For this capable young Chicago actor, this is clearly a dark journey of the soul, akin to the one taken annually by Mr. Scrooge.
But the moral conscience of this production is Mary Winn Heider, back for a fourth year as Mary and Mrs. Bailey. The trap with playing Mary is to merely act the perfect retro spouse — fun, forgiving, loyal, endlessly loving — and thus make the whole thing entirely about George. Heider doesn't just do that, although her Mary is surely appealing. She spends a lot of her time watching and listening to George; it feels as though she knows the end of every story a long time before her husband finally catches on. It might well be a wonderful life in the end for George, but Heider makes you wonder long and hard exactly what his wife really thinks about all of that business.
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Running time: 1 hour,
Tickets: $35-$40 at
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