New look at ‘A Wonderful Life’ in Lanesboro

November 16, 2018

LANESBORO — There are only so many Christmas stories out there, and we know most of them by heart.

So the Commonweal Theatre decided to try something different this year: A live radio play of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with sound effects created on stage.

It’s a way to perhaps find something new and different in a familiar holiday tale.

“It’s definitely a new twist on the story, a way people haven’t seen it before,” said Philip Muehe, who is directing the show. “It forces you to see things you haven’t seen before in that story.”

The play features Commonweal company members Lizzy Andretta, David Hennessey, Eric Lee, Brandt Roberts, Jeremy van Meter and apprentice actor Lauren Schulke. The premise is that van Meter’s character has wandered into an abandoned radio station. “The spirits of the station invite him to do this play with them,” Muehe said. For the play, van Meter, lately seen as Dracula on the Commonweal stage, takes the role of George Bailey.

Radio plays were fairly common once upon a time, but modern audiences don’t always find them all that interesting. “It’s kind of a fine balance you have to walk,” Muehe said. “You have to be true to the radio play, but we have to remember we have a live audience here. Our goal from the beginning was to make this not a passive experience.”

There will be sound effects created on stage, and the actors will portray multiple characters — all your favorites from the movie.

It’s a cheerful holiday offering, tinged with almost overwhelming sadness for the Commonweal family as long-time company member Scott Dixon copes with late-stage cancer. “We’ve decided the best way to honor Scott is to put on the best show we can,” Muehe said. “Try to spread a little happiness.”

For the cast and audiences alike, that happiness mixed with sadness reflects so much of life. “I hope people walk out of the theater feeling a little bit less alone,” Muehe said. “I love that moment when George finds the whole town has come together to help him out. We all need to be that for someone else.”

Muehe said he has purposely avoided watching the film of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the most popular Christmas films of all time, in preparing for this production. He wanted to leave room for the Commonweal to put its own mark on the story.

“It was kind of intimidating to be asked to direct this,” he said. “For me, it was about going back to our mission of actor-based storytelling.”

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