By Annette Hinkle
Now that Thanksgiving Day is upon us, we can expect, for better and for worse, the onslaught of annual holiday traditions that will inevitably follow.
While Black Friday door busters and endless commercials for expensive jewelry most husbands will not be buying their wives may represent the worst, this year we can also count on Michael Disher and his actors at Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center to bring us the best of the season.
And for many people, the best of the season is the opportunity to see “It’s A Wonderful Life” live on stage.
Mr. Disher and his cast and crew offer four performances of the seasonal classic this weekend at the Southampton Cultural Center. The piece tells the emotional story of George Bailey, a middle-aged man so beaten down by life in the small town of Bedford Falls that by one cold, snowy December night, he’s ready to end it all. Then his angel, Clarence, intervenes to take him on a tour of what life would have been like had he never been born.
No matter how many times we’ve seen it before, this story never fails to move even the hardest of hearts. By the time Clarence gets his wings, there’s rarely a dry eye left in the house.
“I like the story. It makes me think an awful lot,” admits Mr. Disher. “What if we weren’t here? What if I wasn’t here and you weren’t here? How would it alter this whole life tapestry? What if that person who shot up all those people in Paris wasn’t here? That one soul, how dramatically could history be altered?”
“I’m not saying we have that power, but if you take away a grain of sand, you don’t have the entire beach,” he adds.
This version of “It’s A Wonderful Life” is set not on the streets of Bedford Falls, but rather in a 1940s radio studio and the script, penned by Connecticut’s Joe Landry, is pared down to a lean 60 minutes.
“This version gets to the heart and cuts out the unnecessary exposition,” explains Mr. Disher. “And I have the opportunity to do many shows in a day.”
Last year, Mr. Disher co-produced this play with Bonnie Grice of WPPB 88.3 FM and in addition to the live performances, the actors also recorded the play so it could be broadcast over the air. (In December, Ms. Grice will direct a broadcast version of the play at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead).
For Mr. Disher, this piece is all about nostalgia, and the costumes will be accurate to the period while the set will evoke a radio station dolled up for Christmas with vintage mics, script stands and props. To further the ambiance, Mr. Disher has called upon the cast members to make cookies for the audience.
“We’ll do what is called a ‘cookie walk.’ You go down the aisle and you get the cookies you want,” he explains. “It just adds to the homespun flavor of the day. You get some fresh baked goods and watch a one hour show.”
Nostalgia is the focus of this show, and Mr. Disher finds that sound can be a powerful memory trigger. Simply hearing the familiar lines without the benefit of a full set is enough to evoke images of Jimmy Stewart working through the tragic breakdown as George Bailey in the Frank Capra film.
“When you hear it, your memory goes way back, and though you may be watching this live radio play and hearing these actors, you see that old film,” he says.
A big part of any tradition is passing it on to the next generation, and last year, Mr. Disher particularly enjoyed the number of parents who used the production as an opportunity to bring their children to the theater for the very first time.
“Give me children who’ve never been to the theater and look at the stage with mouths agape,” says Mr. Disher. “This is awesome. This makes it worthwhile.”
Mr. Disher has spent a lot of years producing and directing theatrical productions on the East End. As you talk to him about this show, it’s hard not to sense that he’s getting a bit melancholy about what this show has to say about the importance of life — his own included.
“When I was younger, I didn’t bother to think about it,” he admits. “You project forward to what will be. Now I’m looking back on acceptance — the shoulda woulda coulda game.”
“I think that’s what ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ does,” he adds. “A man in such a small town is an integral part of that town — and his absence would be sorely missed. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ makes you analyze your self worth. What is your value?”
“I was never a big fan of wanting to be extremely wealthy, powerful or celebrated. I just wanted to do good work and have enough.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life” runs November 27 at 5 and 7 p.m. and November 29 at 2 and 7 p.m. The cast includes: Daniel Becker, Rich Gardini, Colette Gilbert, Kristin Guldi, Barbara Jo Howard, Joan Lyons, Bill Kitzerow, Chris McCLain, Deborah Marshall, Robert Nelson, Tramar Pettaway, Amie Sponza, Kristin Whiting, Scout Whiting, Scott Wilson and Edna Winston. Tickets are $20 ($10). Call (631) 287-4377 to reserve or visit www.scc-arts.org.