Playwright Joe Landry has shared, and earned, loads of holiday cheer with his "radio play" adaptations of seasonal stories. While It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play sells out at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 3, A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play packs in crowds at the Resident Theatre Company (RTC) in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The adaptor's approach is the same in both: script the story as a 1940s play for voices; add some carols, underscoring, and live Foley sounds; then invite an audience to watch how radio drama was performed before television, when it was the home's primary entertainment. Landry even composes period-style commercials, enacted live by the cast.
The problem with director Kristin MacLaughlin Mitchell's A Christmas Carol is that she doesn't trust this formula.
No feast for the ear
Landry's approach highlights radio drama's charms: actors holding scripts and voicing different characters, changing from one to another while also performing sound effects. Since it's radio — even with a live audience watching — costumes, props, and lighting effects are irrelevant. The fun for us is seeing how the actors differ from their vocalized characters, how cleverly the sound effects are created, and how the story succeeds even though we witness the artifice. It's very theatrical because we must use our imaginations.
At RTC, however, the actors recite memorized lines and wear costume pieces to differentiate characters. This shows either a lack of understanding about radio drama or a distrust of the audience's ability to discern characters from actors' voices, clear narration, and common sense.
Sarah Mitchell's basic costumes suggest the 1940s and might be what radio actors wore to work, but hats, scarves, and other added pieces don't belong. In one silly moment, Bob Cratchit (Rajeer Alford) and Tiny Tim (Michaela Shuchman) pass a hat back and forth, as if unable to utter their lines without the proper headgear. Lance Kniskern's handsome deco set is too pretty to be a working radio studio and isn't a set for A Christmas Carol. Lily Fossner's lighting adds fussy effects. These efforts only dilute the drama, replacing what should be a charming vocal rendition of the familiar story, its visuals provided by Dickens's prose, with an awkward, half-assed, Frankenstein’s-monster version.
Look up radio in the dictionary
The Walnut's production achieves all the show's goals. There’s magic in actors creating many characters by merely speaking into microphones, scripts in hand, with no staging but the radio's practical requirements. They create a synergy that reveals story while allowing us to glimpse a lost art. And for one moment, RTC’s A Christmas Carol did it.
The night's biggest laugh came when bald actor Mark Woodard recited an ad for Brylcreem, the men's hair product. Finally, we witnessed the ironic juxtaposition of audio and studio realities.
This insight eluded Mitchell in her casting. Woodard makes a standard Scrooge. Alex G. Kunz, despite an overactive New Yawk accent, and Alford play a variety of mostly younger men. Hanna Gaffney voices adult women, while younger, more petite Shuchman is relegated to boys and girls. Part of radio's charm is that a child might be convincingly voiced by an older man, and vice-versa.
Tom Wang's upstage Foley sound table is confoundingly difficult to see. Pianist Matthew Mastronardi is hidden behind his upright. It’s almost as if Mitchell doesn't want them on stage.
The 90-minute show ends with a lovely four-part harmony on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a saving grace negated by the director, who interrupts our applause and crushes the mood to make standard pre-show announcements about donating to the theater.
RTC, that stuff in your stocking? It's coal.