By Michelle Trauring
Cindy Clifford always knows the moment is coming.
The bell rings, and she braces herself. Zuzu utters the famous words, and she takes a deep breath.
But even after all these years, she feels the all-too-familiar lump in her throat as her eyes grow hot — whether it’s watching the film, practicing the lines in rehearsal, or seeing the final scene of “It’s A Wonderful Life” unfold on stage.
She gives in. Every time.
“In spite of myself, in spite of knowing what happens, in spite of knowing it’s not really happening at that moment, I get so swept up in it, emotionally, that I’m always choked up toward the end,” she said. “And I go, ‘Isn’t that something?’ All this time. There is just no immunity to it.”
The director of Joe Landry’s “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” — in which she will also act alongside four additional cast members and a Foley artist on Sunday, December 17, at The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead — is one of three directors to bring holiday classics to the East End, first starting with Michael Disher, who will instead stage “A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play” at the Southampton Cultural Center this year.
“I absolutely love this format. I just adore it. It takes people back to a simpler time,” Disher said of the radio plays. “During the holiday season, I think we need to be reminded of that Norman Rockwell sense within us, which is extremely nostalgic and homespun — to hearken back to a simpler time where people had to listen, they had to speak, they had to speak well. It’s almost a lost art form.”
The set-up that Landry employs in both plays transforms each theater into a live 1940s radio studio, complete with a sound effects table, old-fashioned microphones and period costumes that help set the mood for both the audience and the voice actors, who are responsible for between one and 16 characters each, the directors explained.
“When you work in radio, really, all you have is your voice. That’s how you transmit to people who you are, or what the message is, or how you want them to feel,” Clifford said. “To be able to watch a troupe of voice actors using their voices to really create an entire town, there’s something really special about that. Even if I was just in the audience, I think I would be just as charmed by it.”
WPPB’s Bonnie Grice knows that all too well. The East End radio personality directed a production of “It’s A Wonderful Life” at The Suffolk Theater herself, she said, though she only came around to the story as an adult.
“Until recently, I wasn’t a big fan of it. I’m probably being a heretic saying that,” she said. “It’s so dark, oh my God. But now, since I’ve gotten older and have perspective, I do appreciate it more.”
For those who are unfamiliar, “It’s A Wonderful Life” follows the story of George Bailey, a deeply frustrated businessman contemplating suicide when he is confronted by an angel who shows him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
“It’s a reality a lot of people have faced — losing everything and not feeling you’re worth anything unless you die because you have a life insurance policy,” Grice said.
“I understand that a lot of people resonate with that. It seems that, unfortunately, that kind of message doesn’t go away.”
From the time he was a child — waiting with his sister for the black-and-white broadcast, starring Jimmy Stewart, to air — Disher said “It’s A Wonderful Life” reminds him of the worth of every human being, and to appreciate the smallest of moments.
“Every gesture can result in goodness,” he said. “Well, not every gesture because we’re surrounded by calamity these days, but maybe we should be reminded of that so people don’t give up.”
This is a story about a life-changing experience, Clifford said, one about redemption and getting a second chance. It is a story about an epiphany that, in this case, made a man see the value in his own life — that it was one worth having.
“That’s a really beautiful thing,” she said. “While the story is rooted in fiction, that is not. That is a real possibility for human beings, that we can have our perspective changed. That we can step back sometimes and reach a point of seeing things differently, and being much more grateful for what we have in our lives.”
She broke into mock tears, trailing into a laugh.
“But it is so beautiful, when you think about it,” she said.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” will stage on Sunday, December 17, at 6 p.m. at The Suffolk Theater, located at 118 East Main Street in Riverhead. Tickets range from $15 to $30. Doors, bar and restaurant open at 4:30 p.m. For more information, please call (631) 727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com.
Editor’s Picks: Holiday Shows
Hampton Ballet Theatre School: The Nutcracker
December 8-December 10
Guild Hall, East Hampton
A holiday tradition in East Hampton, the Hampton Ballet Theatre School will bring the classic tale of the Nutcracker to the John Drew Theater with performances at 7 p.m. on Friday, at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $15 to $45. For more information, visit hamptonballettheatreschool.com.
North Fork Community Theatre: The Santaland Diaries
North Fork Community Theatre, Mattituck
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, enjoy humorist David Sedaris’ comedic take on one man’s experience as Santa’s elf at Macy’s. This play is for mature audiences only. Tickets are $15. For more information, call (631) 298-6328 or visit nfct.com.
Mixed Nuts: A Classic Holiday Nutcracker … with a Twist
December 15-December 17
Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor
Join the holiday magic on Friday and Saturday at 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door. For more information, call (631) 537-3008 or visit dancestudio3.com.
WLNG’s Rockabilly Christmas
Suffolk Theater, Riverhead
Jason D. Williams, Gene Casey & The Lonesharks and Prentiss McNeil for WLNG’s annual Rockabilly Christmas at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39-$45. For more information, visit suffolktheater.com.
Goat on a Boat Puppet Theater: Holiday Fun!
Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor
Join Liz Joyce and a couple of puppets at 11 a.m. for Holiday Fun! For more information, visit goatonaboat.org or baystreet.org.