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Holidays are not complete for many people until they've watched "It's a Wonderful Life," the 1946 Frank Capra classic starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
It's the timeless story of George Bailey, who dreams of leaving Bedford Falls to see the world. But obligations and circumstances tie him to his hometown and his inherited Building & Loan forever.
He contemplates ending his life until an angel on a bridge shows him how wonderful it is, and how woeful it would have been for others without him.
This year, Portland theater fans can see a new twist on the famed story with Artists Repertory Theatre's "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," by playwright Joe Landry, Dec. 6-30 at Northwest Children's Theater and School. Six actors play multiple roles each, with the help of a Foley artist, as the show depicts a radio show that tells the beloved holiday story.
It stars Chris Harder as actor Jake Laurents, who plays George Bailey in the radio show, and fellow Artists Rep resident artist Susannah Mars as Sally Applewhite, who plays wife Mary Bailey.
Beth Harper of Portland Actors Conservatory, and a longtime Artists Repertory Theater artist, directs.
It's the first Christmas play for Harder, and it's an ideal one.
"It's a movie I watch every year," he says. "Family is important to me — the holidays and Christmas time of year, the reunions, getting the family back together.
"With George, it's the story of a guy who's a good man with big dreams, and he finds himself taking care of things, drawn to helping people ... doing things that he's compelled to do because that's who he is and how he was brought up."
He adds: "When I told my family that I was playing the role — there's something special about it, the family and tradition. He's an iconic character. I can't hardly say the words without hearing or imagining Jimmy in the role. I'm sort of trying to find that balance of making it my own and yet most people know the movie, they have it in their mind and see Jimmy Stewart playing the role. So there's hinting at the movie and leaning into those full emotional moments that we remember."
Mars has done many holiday shows, but not "It's a Wonderful Life."
"It's a story that never gets old: Kindness and genersoity, and small acts of kindness and how they blossom into bigger picture things," she says.
"I adore the movie, watch it every year. I cried in the first (script) read. I find it so touching. It's such an incredible story, and it's dealing with such a contemporary issue of people feeling they belong — and a potential suicide attempt. It's handled so beautifully, light and deep and charming and with such innocence about it. It's not jaded at all."
Damaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep artistic director, says the show "is about gratitude: for all the good people in our lives, for the support of our loved ones, and for the ways we are united as a community."
Harder enjoys working with Mars, who he says "is easy to fall in love with" as Mary.
"She's so delightful and charming. We have great chemistry," he says, while she adds, "he's an absolutely wonderful person. So generous and warm."
It's an interesting show format: Actors playing actors who are playing characters putting on a radio play on stage.
"We're entertainers of the time (1946); I've come back from shooting a movie, and same with Chris," Mars says. "What's really fun is the woman playing the Foley artist. It's really funny hearing all the sound effects. ... Being on radio, the words of the story are so powerful, and very simple."
Actors playing multiple roles lends itself to some creative staging.
"My character only plays George and his younger self. The guy who plays Mr. Potter and George's dad, he's in a scene all by himself," Harder says. "That's the fun of it — actors are doing multiple roles. It's fun watching them flip roles."
He adds: "We're talking through microphones and with live sound effects. It's a very auditory experience."
"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" stages 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays, Dec. 6-30, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12. It takes place at Northwest Children's Theater and School, 1819 N.W. Everett St.
Tickets: $40, $30 preview/student/under 25, $25 children 10 and under, discounts available, www.artistsrep.org.
It stars Susannah Mars, Chris Harder, David Bodin, Jimmy Garcia, Alyssa Longoria and Victoria Schindler, as well as Leslie North (Foley sound effects artist).
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