Taking Stage

Tennessee Shakespeare Co. leading ‘a wonderful life’

By Andy Meek

The latest production from Tennessee Shakespeare Co. is a stage version of one of the silver screen’s most beloved morality tales – the one about an angel on a mission, the magic of Christmas and the futility of worrying over what might have been.

Amelia Hammond plays Mary Hatch and Trevor Pittinger plays George Bailey in Tennessee Shakespeare Co.’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” directed by Stephanie Shine.

(Photo Courtesy of Joey Miller)

The professional classical theater company is staging an adapted version of the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” running through Dec. 16 at the Dixon Gallery & Garden’s Winegardner Auditorium. This new version comes to life in the form of a 1946 radio play directed by Stephanie Shine, with the Dixon auditorium transformed into an old-fashioned remote radio station bandstand.

All the dialogue and characters from the film are employed by a company of seven actors for the production, which is sponsored by FedEx Corp.

To go along with the more famous characters and elements of the story, like Bedford Falls’ down-on-his-luck George Bailey, the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter and Clarence the angel, period holiday decorations will help audiences connect with the story. There also are commercial jingles and hand-made sound effects to enliven the “radio play” element of the production.

The Tennessee Shakespeare Co., meanwhile, shares a thematic tie with the play. To founder and producing artistic director Dan McCleary, it’s a wonderful life, indeed.

Starting in 2006, he began sketching out in his head what Tennessee Shakespeare Co. would eventually become while at his then-home in Massachusetts. McCleary was born and raised here, but he moved away to act, direct and produce.

A catalyst for his plans was wanting to see more professional classical theater in his hometown.

“I was about to turn 40 and thought I knew just enough to do this and not enough not to do it,” he said. “We embarked on this six years ago, and it’s already grown well past its seven-year strategic plan in a very short period of time.”

Amelia Hammond, from left, Trevor Pittinger, Jim Eikner, Lorraine Cotten, Bradley Kroeker and Kim Justis star in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.”

It has evolved into an entity that performs the plays of William Shakespeare outdoors and indoors; provides year-round educational and training programming and will perform classical and Southern writers seasonally indoors.

In addition to Frank Bluestein, McCleary was joined by the City of Germantown, the Rev. Gary Sturni of St. George’s Episcopal Church and Barbara Apperson in making the preparation year possible. Tennessee Shakespeare Co. was incorporated in February 2008 with a founding board of directors.

The 2011-2012 season was record-setting for the company in terms of things like numbers of productions, performances, educational offerings, co-productions and box office. It featured “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” outdoors at Shelby Farms Park, “Southern Yuletide” and “The Glass Menagerie” at the Dixon, schools tours of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Rebel Shakespeare and His Women” and the Third Annual Valentine’s Gala featuring Broadway composer Charles Strouse at Germantown Performing Arts Centre.

“We produce live classical theater in environmental settings all over Memphis and outside Memphis,” McCleary said. “Our educational programming has reached over 100,000 students. The Dixon has been a longtime partner. They have been very welcoming and great with us. (“It’s A Wonderful Life”) will be our fourth production at the Dixon. Along with our performances at Germantown, at City Hall, Shelby Farms, the Dixon has really helped us get on the map.”

In addition to its 19-member board, the company is supported by its 50-member “Groundlings” volunteer organization, founded and led by president Donna Ladd.

For the performance over the next several days of the classic Christmas story, each member of the company of actors plays a radio personality who, in turn, plays multiple characters in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

“We’d been hoping to do ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ for a couple of years,” McCleary said. “Why we were able to do it is FedEx made it possible. They’re our title sponsors. It’s a very period, fun piece with lots of jingles in it people might remember.”