URBANA — Before Monday’s dress rehearsal of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” at the Station Theatre in Urbana, writer Ed Pierce made sure all of the actors removed their modern-day water bottles from the set as the cast gathered to pantomime a post-war holiday party.
The cast gathered around the piano to sing songs, and others danced, and Pierce encouraged them to mingle with the few people in attendance watching.
This is no normal production of the classic Christmas movie, as audience members will notice immediately when the show opens at 7:30 tonight. The moment they enter the theater, they are meant to feel like it’s Christmas Eve 1946.
“It’s like two realities collide,” producer Kay Holley said. “It’s kind of a cool intertwining of the external reality going into deeper levels. It’s got that wonderful story that we all know from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the movie, but then there’s all this other stuff going on too.”
Pierce’s rendition of the Jimmy Stewart classic is a show within a show.
The concept of the play is that a 1946 radio performance of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been brought to the theater. When the audience begins filtering in, the cast will be in character as radio actors who are hosting a holiday party before the show. At 7:30, the radio program begins.
“I wanted to do something that would connect with the audience,” Pierce said, “but also would still present with some of the fourth-wall challenges that Station is famous for, challenging some things and making you look at things a little bit differently.”
Actors step up to a series of four microphones as John Tilford stands at his “Foley Table” with a series of items that will create the show’s sound effects, including shoes to make the sound of walking, a bag of cereal that will be crunched to mimic shoes walking on snow, a box of macaroni that sounds like the churning of a train’s wheels, and many more. Each cast member plays multiple parts in the show and reads off of scripts with the exuberance of a radio actor.
“As an actor, it really is an interesting challenge because you not only have to convey everything — the motivations, the scene, the relationships — you have to convey that only through your voice,” said Pierce, who previously acted in a play with a similar radio-show theme. “Not only do you have to do that, but all of the actors in the show play five different parts, so you have to make each of them sound distinct. So it’s a very fun challenge.”
The Urbana theater’s regular patrons don’t necessarily go in expecting a typical play. The goal of this show is to make the audience forget that they’re at one at all — at least the one they’re actually attending.
“I think it’s kind of interesting to see it in a totally different form,” Holley said. “The movie is so iconic, and I think that it’s so beloved that to maybe just try to do the story as a play, I don’t know if it could live up to it. But to just put it in a completely different kind of setting and make it a radio play, it lets people watch how live radio broadcasts are done.”