“Wonderful Life” retold

“It’s a Wonderful Life” featured at Hidden Garden, Christmas dinner theater is Dec. 7, 8 and 9

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CHRISMAN – “It’s a Wonderful Life” is such an iconic Christmas fixture it seems an especially difficult challenge to tell the story any other way than how Frank Capra shot the film.

Sarah Mills, who is directing her first Darkhorse Theatre production, has found a novel way to retell this classic about a life-crushing Christmas Eve experienced by George Bailey, who with the help of a less than stellar guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, rediscovers what makes life important. She is staging the play as if it is taking place in a 1940s Manhattan radio station with actors doing a live broadcast.

The approach works well within the limited confines of the Hidden Garden Antiques and Tea Room because there is no need for multiple scene changes between the Bailey home, the building and loan association office, the bank and numerous other locations capturing the town of Bedford Falls. Mills has created her radio studio using items in the antique store as set décor, five actors playing all of the roles and the assistance of a Foley table where Melanie Clark provides the appropriate sound effects.

As the director of a Christmas-themed dinner theater at Hidden Garden, Mills chose to do “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories, and it’s got a good message,” said Mills.

Darkhorse Theatre is mostly based in Vermilion County with a goal of bringing community theater to small towns that may lack facilities for bigger, more traditional approaches to plays. Hidden Gardens proprietor Judy Wyatt supports the effort as something good for northern Edgar County and makes her business available for two productions every year.

The theatre troupe recently ventured into Paris with a production of “Steel Magnolias” at the Tingley Reception Center featuring several local people in roles.

Performers in “It’s a Wonderful Life” are from Oakwood, Westville, Tilton, Catlin and Chrisman. Mills described the group as people who are both veterans and new to Darkhorse Theatre.

Selecting the cast was a matter of recruiting people known to her and some auditions. A chance to perform in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a draw in itself.

“Everybody loves the show, and they were all eager to do it,” said Mills.

Jim Rogers and Melissa Wheeler play George and Mary Bailey, and except for participating in the occasional radio commercial break during the show, those are the only characters they read. The remainder of the cast is Amanda Dudich, Andrew Dudich and Tyler Sayre, who do every other character in the play.

Mills said just as radio requires listeners to use their imagination, she hopes audience members will use their imagination to place the characters in action and location beyond the studio setting.

Performances are 6 p.m. Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 using a dinner theater seating. The $35 ticket includes a meal of chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, green beans, roll, dessert and drink.

A 2 p.m. dessert matinee Dec. 9 is $20 and audience members get a dessert and beverage while enjoying the show.

Reservations are required and may be made by calling 217-251-2636.