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Irish Repertory gets its wings as WIRT

Theatre / By Orla O'Sullivan

“It’s a Wonderful Life: The 1946 Radio Show” * Adapted by Anthony E. Palermo from Frank Capra’s film * Directed by Charlotte Moore * Starring Max Gordon Moore, Peter Maloney, Katie Fabel, with Rory Duffy, Kristin Griffith, Ian Holcomb * The Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 W. 22nd St., NYC, Tel: 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org * Wednesday to Sunday through Dec. 30.

It’s a short trip back in time in the Irish Rep’s staging of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the 1946 film starring James Stewart re-imagined as a radio play.

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For 70 minutes, we get to play a live radio audience from the same era, prompted by “on air” and “applause” signs, and witness to sound effects being made before our eyes. It’s a double-dose of nostalgia at the most nostalgic time of the year.

Radio veteran Anthony E. Palermo adapted and abridged the Christmas movie to be either a broadcast or theatrical homage to the heyday of radio. The Irish Rep, as WIRT (geddit?), takes to the air with that, and adds fun touches of its own, such as the deliberately dated ads scripted by director Charlotte Moore. “Lucky Strike [cigarettes]: helping our proud vets breathe easier when they return from the front.”

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Ian Holcomb, one of the six actors who play 25 parts—by literally wearing different hats—set the playful tone before the show even began. Holcomb, as the announcer, speaking into a big, old-fashioned microphone, said: “We’ll be surprised if we hear any ringing as there were no cell phones in 1946.”

The 1946 “radio play” takes us back to a sleepy, fictional town in upstate New York on Christmas Eve 1945. In a tale familiar to most of us, George Bailey (Max Gordon Moore) is on the brink of financial ruin, despite his best efforts all his life. He concludes: “It would’ve been better if I had never been born!”

Just as he is about to jump from the Bedford Falls’s bridge, enter Clarence (Peter Maloney) an ineffectual angel, waiting 200 years for his wings, who might just get them if he saves George from suicide. He grants George his wish, then shows him how different—and impoverished—the world would have been without him. “Each man’s life touches many other lives… You see, George, you had a wonderful life.”

We are all convinced. Irony hasn’t completely supplanted sincerity, even in our cynical times, it seems. The show perfectly captures the earnestly eager expressions and crisp, well-modulated diction of the 1940s.

In an overall strong cast, Moore is particularly impressive as George. Rory Duffy, who creates sound effects and plays a host of small parts, stands out as a wonderfully smarmy barman purveying fake cheer.

That’s the bar where George hits his low-point and makes his fateful decision. As he eloquently puts it: “I got punched in answer to a prayer.”

There are a couple of points where the script seems off (George’s mother is oblivious early on that he is giving up his dreams to take over the family bank?), but the staging feels spot on. The lack of passion in a bank board meeting is brilliantly conveyed as is the depth of it in the scene where a conflicted George kisses Mary (Katie Fabel) and relinquishes his dreams of travel to settle down.

But, wherever you wind up, it’s a wonderful life, right?