ATC’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play”

Airing on TV year after year, Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” became the classic American Christmas story of the 20th century.

Like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” it somehow manages to seem fresh and moving, even if you’ve experienced it dozens of times before.

Hearing all those familiar lines from Capra’s film in a new context is one of the joys of the American Theater Company’s stage version, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play.” It makes you appreciate all over again just how funny, charming and quirky the dialogue and characters were in the original film. And similar to “A Christmas Carol,” this story shows an inspiring generosity of spirit without shying away from dark themes.

Starring in the George Bailey role that Jimmy Stewart made famous, Christopher McLinden vividly captures the character’s turbulent mix of traits: He’s an idealist do-gooder as well a man incredibly frustrated by his thwarted ambitions to study and travel the world. Chicago stage legend Mike Nussbaum enthusiastically embodies both the evil banker Mr. Potter and Clarence, the kind but bumbling angel who comes down to Earth to save George. It’s almost as if Nussbaum is playing the angel sitting on one of George’s shoulders, and the devil on the other.

They’re actually supposed to be radio actors playing Capra’s characters in the WATC studio, where a foley artist (Rick Kubes) creates sound effects with typewriters, shoes and blocks of wood. It’s the sort of framing device that can make the story within the story feel distant, but director Jason Gerace’s show works on both levels. It’s great fun being part of the studio audience for the radio show. And no matter how many times you’ve seen it before, you’ll still be touched by this story about a man who gets to see what the world would be like if he’d never been born.

Now in its 10th year at ATC, this lovely version of Capra’s classic is becoming a worthy holiday tradition in its own right.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play” continues through Dec. 24 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. For tickets and information, visit atcweb.org or call 773-409-4125.