Three metal music stands perched at the edge of the Memorial Hall stage in Essex on a snowy Monday evening, each holding a script lined with dozens of colorful tabs. Familiar character names were inscribed on each: George, Potter and Zuzu among them.
Before the first dress rehearsal commenced, stage manager Louise Richmond wet a trio of bright yellow sponges attached to the stand bases. The kitchen apparatus would hopefully offer the actors a more subtle way to wet their fingertips before turning the pages, she explained with a smirk.
It’s unusual for a crew of actors to not have their lines memorized so close to showtime, but the cast of the Essex Community Players’ “It’s a Wonderful Life” have a unique factor working in their favor: The play will be presented in the style of an old-school radio broadcast.
Actors Jay Miller and Trevor Fulchino, both Milton residents, said the classic 1946 film is on their must-watch list every holiday season, often to the chagrin of Miller’s children.
With that in mind, Miller and Fulchino said it was difficult at first to reimagine the iconic mannerisms actor Jimmy Stewart applied to lead character George Bailey, whose suicidal thoughts prompt a visit from his guardian angel, Clarence.
“One of the things I’m amazed at, and have always been amazed at, is the amount and quality of talent in small companies like this,” Miller said.
Don MacKechnie makes his directorial debut in this show with assistance from Donna Boisselle, a veteran ECP director. The pair has led a 19-person cast — the youngest just 10 years old — through about a month of rehearsals.
“At Christmastime, it’s quite often difficult to get people to commit,” Boisselle said. “What’s nice about this particular show is they didn’t have to commit to memorizing a script.”
Aside from the man playing George Bailey, every actor in the show juggles multiple characters in addition to their roles as radio actors. Most have adopted unique voices and personalities to distinguish between their different parts, Boisselle said.
In program notes, the playwright says many audience members have a tendency to close their eyes during productions of this radio-style show, allowing imagination to take over as they listen intently.
“They were actually visualizing it, listening to it as a radio play,” MacKechnie explained. “They’re putting together the picture … It’s a different perspective on the audience response.”
Elderly audience members might recall the radio broadcasts of their youth, but the recent surge of podcast popularity might mean younger attendees are also accustomed to the notion of a mostly-auditory experience, MacKechnie said.
Those who keep their eyes open will pick up on a few fun visual elements. At the back of the stage, a sound effects table, called a foley is transformed into a radio booth with the call letters “WECP,” a nod to the company name.
San Harrington sits behind the tabletop, using a variety of household materials to make relevant noises. Wooden paint sticks simulate crack ing ice, while a plastic Tupperware container filled with dice mimics the rumbling engine of a Ford Model T.
Radio “commercial breaks” are also interspersed throughout the two-hour show, the advertisements promoting local businesses that have contributed to the production. Even with the lengthy runtime, the directors say the story flies.
“It’s surprising how fast it goes if you’re not looking at your watch,” Boisselle said.
The Essex Community Players’ production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play” runs on December 1-3 and 8-10 at Memorial Hall, 5 Towers Rd., Essex Jct. Friday and Saturday evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. General tickets are $18, and children, students and seniors pay $16.
A discounted rate is available for Essex residents during the matinee on Sunday, Dec. 3. Tickets are available at www.essexplayers.com. Proceeds from concession sales will be donated to the Aunt Dot’s Place food shelf.