PICTURED: The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life during dress rehearsal over Zoom. Photo courtesy of Ojai ACT

by Emily Dodi 

The announcement read, “Ojai Arts Center Theater makes life wonderful again.” It was a welcome signal that some holiday cheer was on its way. Through the magic of Zoom, director Gai Jones and her cast and crew bring Joe Landry’s stage play, based on the beloved holiday film classic It’s a Wonderful Life, to screens everywhere. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is available on demand through Dec. 19.

From the moment the first actor appears on screen, it’s clear everyone is thrilled to be “onstage” again. The streaming production is the first from Ojai Art Center Theater (OACT) since the pandemic “put a sudden end to the theater’s 2020 season.” Creating a show, especially for the holidays, was something OACT was determined to do. 

“We need to know that even though we’re social distancing, theater can bring us together,” Jones said. “The crew and cast . . . have created a digital performance which brings the theme home. It is a wonderful life; we’re glad you were born.”

Even over Zoom, it takes a small village to pull a theatrical production together. Phil Nemy and Emily Hall star as George and Mary Bailey. Paul Carpenter plays Clarence and Tom Hall is Joseph. Mr. Potter is played by Douglas Parker. Arshan Barati, Audrin Monfared, Hadley Julca and Amber Hodges appear as the younger versions of George, Harry, Violet and Mary. The large cast also includes Larry Swartz, Bill Spellman, Lenny Klaif, Lisa Gosselin, Kelly Hollis, John Hankins, Poeme Howard, Marilyn Lazik, Linda Thompson, Ashley Osler, Adam Dunn, Sue Barry, Suzy Thatcher, Shannon Penrith, Sheila McCarthy, Dyana Landis, Lily Rose Julca, Lynne Van Emmerick and Jahan Barati. 

The crew includes stage manager Sue Barry, costumer Sheryl Jo Bedal, hair stylist and hand choreographer Amber Hodge, on-camera foley artist and video editor Adam Dunn, tech advisor Paul Carpenter and guitarist Hadley Julca.  

Bringing the production to audiences via Zoom presented Jones et al with unique challenges. 

“Zoom is another world,” Jones explained. “The actors might all perform in different locations but they still need to come together as an ensemble.” The experience prompted the play’s 29 actors, ranging in ages from 8 to 83, to learn new skills and adapt to a whole new “venue.” For some of the crew, working via Zoom meant their work was narrowed in focus. Take costumer Bedal, who made great use of her vast collection of vintage hats. “It’s actually the fastest and easiest I’ve gotten a show costumed,” she said. “Wearing period hats is important to draw the audience into the late 1940s.”

Although it is performed in the digital universe, complete with its imperfections, the show reminds us what is perfectly true: that we are here together and it really is a wonderful life.  

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play through Dec.19 on demand. Tickets available at ojaiact.org/iawl.