FORTVILLE — Putting “It’s a Wonderful Life” on stage without audiences comparing the performance to the classic 1946 film presents a challenge for any theater troupe.

But the task is made easier when the setting features a radio studio where the actors are depicting voice actors; and those characters are performing a radio version of the beloved Christmas story decades before the film became annual viewing for generations of Americans.

“This is not the Jimmy Stewart’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’; this is something different,” said Kyle Willman, who stars in Ten West Center for the Arts’ production of “It’s a Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Play” on Friday and Saturday.

Willman, 38, of Fishers, will play Jake Laurents, a 1940s radio performer voicing George Bailey on a live New York City radio broadcast of the story.

“In my mind, this may have been performed on the radio before the movie was made,” Willman said, explaining that he listened to radio shows from the era and patterned his presentation on them, creating a style that is over the top, perhaps “a little bit cheesy … a little bit schmaltzy.”

That’s necessary, Willman said, because Stewart’s depiction is “iconic … and you could very easily get in trouble by doing a bad Jimmy Stewart.

But also, the way one depicts a character on the radio in the 1940s is different than one would act it on stage or in film.

“Even as I’m playing to an audience in front of me (at Ten West), I’m really playing it for an audience over the airwaves in 1944,” Willman said.

What results is a show within a show, a way of giving audiences something new with a touch of something familiar, director and sound designer Andrew Okerson said.

“We’re taking it and twisting it,” Okerson said. “It’s unique, something different for our audience that may not be familiar with that kind of performance (radio dramas).”

Okerson said most of the actors play roles that are responsible for multiple characters in the radio program.

So while people will recognize the characters and lines being delivered in the stage production of a radio show — as well as the life-affirming message — the lines will be delivered in a different way and in a different context.

Katherine Shepard, 25, of Broad Ripple — who plays radio actor Sally Applewhite voicing Mary Hatch, George Bailey’s love interest — said the role has been challenging on a number of fronts.

While the Chicago-area native has acted since she was 5, it’s been four years since she’s performed on stage.

Also, playing a character who at times is playing another character can be confusing — keeping things straight when she’s supposed to act like Sally Applewhite and when she’s supposed to act like Sally Applewhite playing Mary Hatch.

Then there’s the fact “It’s a Wonderful Life” is her mom’s favorite holiday movie — she “pretty much forced us to watch it every year,” Shepard said — so she’s had to push all those memories from the film aside while embracing her character.

“I have to remind myself, ‘No, make it your own. Don’t mimic her (Donna Reed’s portrayal of Mary Hatch from the film),” Shepard said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”

At a glance

The cast:

Rick Garrett – Oliver Reese Johnston

Kyle Willman – Jake Laurents

Katherine Shepard – Sally Applewhite

Conner Andry – Freddie Filmore

Zarah Miller – Miss Lana Sherwood

Holly Garrett – Miss Alice Jane Kenworthy

Ryan England – Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Lead) Male, 20-60

Evan Miller – Stage Manager

Bryce Hatfield – Understudy

Holly Garret, Dakota Fisher and Alex Ross – WBFR Playhouse Trio

Creative team:

Costume designer – Sydera Theobald

Lighting designer – Matt Okerson

Director and sound designer – Andrew Okerson

Marketing coordinator – Marybeth Sargent

If you go

“It’s a Wonderful Life — A Live Radio Play” shows at 7:30  p.m. Friday and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Ten West Center for the Arts, 10 W. Church St. in Fortville.

Tickets cost $10 for those 18 and older, $8 for seniors and $7 for students with valid ID.

For more details, visit http://tenwestcenter.org/wonderfullife.

Author photo
Scott Slade is community editor. He can be reached at 317-477-3229 or sslade@ptlpnews.com.