It’s a Wonderful Life Review- Oil Lamp Theater’s live radio play

Gabriel Fries and Chelsea Rolfes in "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play", by Joe Landry at Oil Lamp Theater; photo by Gosia Matuszewska

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry,  currently winding up production at Oil Lamp Theater, 1111 Glenview Road, Glenview, delivered more than you would expect from this genre. The 5 actors (plus a sound-effects woman) produced a performance far more developed than a simple reading. Dressed in 1940’s garb, acting in a vintage studio without scripts- also without a change of costume or scenery- the talented cast, 3 of whom portray numerous characters, recreate the classic movie most of us have seen and loved, a hallmark of the Christmas season.

Stephen Smith, Travis Monroe, Gabriel Fries, Alecia Pagnotta, Tim Kough and Rachel Whyte in Oil Lamp Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” by Joe Landry

The story is well-known: George Bailey grew up in Bedford Falls, a town that may seem idyllic to some, but was stultifying to this dreamer, who was determined to get out. He wanted to travel the world, to become an architect, to build skyscrapers. However, circumstances always conspired to keep him at home; his father dies; conniving/rich/evil Mr. Potter tries to capture the Bailey family’s savings-and-loan and take over the town; George’s brother, Harry, rather than taking his turn helping out instead marries into a promising career far away from home. When Uncle Billy accidentally loses a small fortune- $8,000- it pushes George to the verge of suicide, until his guardian angel, Clarence, comes to show him a sort of reverse version of the scene the ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge: what life would be like in the town without him. George comes to his senses, Clarence earns his wings, and happiness reigns on Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls.

In the highly entertaining Oil Lamp Theatre version, the role of George Bailey, originally played by Jimmy Stewart, is acted by Gabriel Fries, in a manner so close to the original that if you close your eyes, you’d swear you are hearing Stewart’s very intonations! Tim Kough was a particularly smarmy Harry Potter. Travis Monroe was a natural both as Harry Bailey and Clarence. Rachel Whyte was wise, endearing, and sexy by turns as Mrs. Bailey Senior, Violet, and daughter ZuZu. Stephen Smith handled Uncle Billy Bailey with a fine bumbling love. Alecia Pagnotta was a cheerful sight as the all-around stagehand/sound technician.

The part of George Bailey’s sweetheart, wife and family mainstay Mary Bailey was played by Chicago actress Chelsea Rolfes, with a strong individualistic sense upgrading the part as played in the original film. She was never seen as a dewy-eyed ingénue, but instead stood out as a determined, educated woman who knew what she wanted from the get-go- (George Bailey!) – and set out to captivate him, make him jealous, marry him, raise their children, and encourage him to be the best man he could be. 

Chelsea Rolfes and Gabriel Fries as Mary and George Bailey

We caught up with Chelsea in between the many sold-out performances to ask about her experience at Oil Lamp, and the slant she gave her iconic character:

Debra Davy: “What special demands does ‘a live radio play’ place upon a primary cast member, such as yours as Mrs. George Bailey?”

Chelsea Rolfes: “I think that I actually have it easier than some of my cast because I only play one character – Mary Bailey. Many of my castmates play multiple different characters and, since it is a radio play, they have to take on different voices and accents to differentiate between the characters and make it clear to the audience which character is speaking. For me, I think the challenge is finding the balance between a true radio play and being in front of an audience. When I think of ‘radio play’ I imagine mostly talking into a mic, but because we are in front of an audience, you have to keep it interesting and make sure you are connecting to the other actors on stage.”

Debra: “Are there special pressures in this performance simply because it is such a very famous holiday movie?” 

Chelsea: “I think I certainly put pressure on myself to live up to the incredible performance Donna Reed gave in the film. There is also pressure to live up to the expectations of audience members who love the movie and watch it every year. At the same time, I want to put my own twist on the part and make it my own instead of a copycat version of the Mary Bailey in the movie. I hope that audiences get the essence and spirit of the Mary Bailey they’ve seen in the film, but with some surprises that bring new life to such a cherished character.”

Debra: “Can you share with the readers what this experience has been like, working so closely with your cast members, relying solely upon the script, some costumes, and your own acting abilities?”

Chelsea: “This experience has been absolutely incredible. The cast and crew are all lovely supportive people and I feel like we created something special that hopefully brings joy and holiday cheer to everyone who comes to see it. I think relying solely on the script and a few costumes allowed us to get to the heart of the story without any distractions. It forces us to focus on the words and allows us to really highlight the message of the play.” 

The cast of Oil Lamp Theater’s 2018 version of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” by Joe Landry

It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story called The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern, 1943; he later famously said the story had come to him in a dream. Be sure to catch it next year at Oil Lamp Theater; this attractive, cozy and well-run venue is easy to reach off I-94, offers delicious free nibbles, and is very reasonably priced.

For information and tickets to all of the fine programming at Oil Lamp Theater, go to Oll Lamp Theater website  w

All photos by Gosia Matuszewska

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