After performing the role upwards of 20 times, a Soldotna actor said he was happy to bring a character he knows inside and out to a stage he knows just as well.
Jamie Nelson, a local part-time actor, part-time personal finance coach, took up the role of George Bailey in the well-known play “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” Wednesday night at Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna during a two-night stand in the area.
The show, presented by Triumvirate and Kenai Performers, is directed by Elizabeth Ware and will run again at 7 p.m. tonight and in Homer on Friday and Saturday nights at the Bunnell Street Gallery.
Nelson, who said he played Bailey and radio announcer Jake Laurents several times last year and this year in Anchorage at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse, said he was glad he would be able to present the play in front of supporting friends and colleagues that weren’t able to see him in the role in Anchorage.
“It’ll be really nice to put it on my home stage,” said Nelson, who recently played a journalist in the film “Big Miracle” and was an extra in the yet-to-be-released “Frozen Ground” film. “I’m very proud to do it here and to bring these professional actors from Anchorage to show them how amazing our home crowds are here.”
The one hour and 40 minute play incorporates five actors, dressed in 1940s garb — telling the tale made famous by the movie of the same name — over the air for a radio audience. However, the play is not traditional in that sense, Nelson said.
The cast must rely on sounds and voice to tell Bailey’s story instead of changing sets, just as if it were being heard by a radio audience, and the audience plays the role of a 1940s in-studio audience providing a laugh track and reaction.
“We do full characterizations where we are definitely acting in those worlds, but we don’t have the full backdrop,” Nelson said. “Instead you have the splendor of sound that comes from all these wonderful foleys (sound creators) because you are lead to believe that it is an auditory medium where we are really trying to make it sound as good for the radio as we can.”
The story revolves around the troubled Bailey who on Christmas Eve questions the way he has lived his life. His worries are answered by his guardian angel who shows him his world in a different light by showing him the good he has done his town and friends.
After playing the character so many times, Nelson said he has come to appreciate Bailey’s perspective.
“It is really hard not to think about how George Bailey feels about life — the fact that he always sets himself aside to make sure that others are doing well and obviously the turn of events in the story that causes him to doubt whether that is a good thing or not,” he said. “We all have our doubts if what we are doing in life is correct and then to be given an opportunity to see that you are making a difference, you do matter in life, is a very rewarding thing. It is a wonderful story to be a part of.”
Jamie’s wife Angie, who will serve as stage manager for the play, agreed.
“No matter how many times I see it, I still choke up at the end,” she said. “Gets me every time.”
Angie Nelson, a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school psychologist, said she has directed a few local productions, but her current role as stage manager, in these showings, will challenge her in a new way.
In one way, she said, she has not had a lot of time to practice the technical side of her responsibility or to work with the actors away from their usual Anchorage stage.
“But they are such a captivating cast that hopefully everyone will get sucked into the story and forget if something goes wrong,” she said with a laugh.
In another way, Angie Nelson said the show’s “spur of the moment” feeling and her role in helping steer the cast as part of the show is new territory. Usually a stage manager is “hidden away,” she said.
“Whereas here I have to call out, ‘Five minutes to air,’ I have to call all the actors to the stage and count them down to live and so actually being part of the show is a lot different,” she said.
Another unique aspect of the cast’s version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is that the actors themselves will be creating the sounds — say walking through the snow created by pinching a box of cornstarch near the microphone — instead of a trained foley, Jamie Nelson said. That, he said, helps give the show a busy, fun feel.
“If you didn’t like the story even just watching the foley all night would keep you entertained,” Jamie Nelson said with a laugh.
Creating that vast array of sounds is an added challenge to the actors who already have to master multiple dialects, mannerisms, voices and ages of those they are vocalizing and impersonating at the same time, Jamie Nelson said.
“I feel kind of lazy in this show because I just play George Bailey,” Jamie Nelson said. “Sure I start out at the age of 12 and go through his character arc and it is obviously a very dramatic character to play. But compared to the three actors that are playing 30 or 40 different characters and all doing these foley sound effects, it is just amazing how they keep it all organized.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org