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The classic radio play The War of the Worlds returns to Lakewood Playhouse

Orson Welles’ notorious radio play of The War of the Worlds celebrates its 80th anniversary. Photo credit: Lakewood Playhouse

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Eighty years ago, this month, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players took to the radio to broadcast a live adaptation of HG Wells' classic tale of an alien invasion, The War of the Worlds. What followed, as legend has it, was widespread panic from listeners who believed they were actually hearing news of an alien attack. While the popular story of mass hysteria following the broadcast has since been reexamined (and downgraded to the less fun, but more likely, case of a few people briefly freaking out), we can tell you with absolute certainty something that did happen in 1938: the Lakewood Playhouse was founded. This shared anniversary between the Lakewood Playhouse and The War of the Worlds' broadcast has been celebrated, in recent years, with the theater staging their own live radio performances of the show.

James Venturini began the tradition of the Lakewood Playhouse staging live radio plays 11 years ago, and he returns to direct this year's performance, though his experience with the medium stretches much farther back than that.

"My history with radio plays goes back to about 1980, when I was a founding member of the Detroit Radio Workshop," says Venturini. "I've been playing around with audio theater ever since, so I've been staging radio plays like this for quite some time. Actually, the first time I did War of the Worlds was for its 60th anniversary, 20 years ago. This is now my seventh go-around with it, and it's great. It's something I do not get tired of, and there are some moments in it that I still get an absolute kick out of performing onstage. The audience reaction is always great. It's a blast."

For those who don't know what to expect from seeing a live radio play, you will essentially be given an inside look into what it might have been like to be in the studio for that broadcast, including watching the actors navigate the theater of the mind, and seeing sound effects done live. As Venturini points out, the increasing popularity of podcasts has helped refresh audiences to the concept of audio theater; essentially, if you've listened to shows like Welcome to Night ValeThe Thrilling Adventure Hour, or The Adventure Zone, you'll have exercised the requisite muscles for imagining the terrifying story woven by Welles and the other actors.

"We try very hard to capture the essence of Orson Welles, and find an appropriate actor for that part, when we do this," says Venturini. "There's a two-minute break around two-thirds of the way through where the actors are just waiting out a commercial or station identification, so at that point we try and capture how that affects Welles."

Welles will be portrayed by Andrew Fox Burden, who recently shined in Brighton Beach Memoirs; Burden will be joined by Kathi Aleman, Dayna Childs, Nicole Lockett, David Phillips, Scott Pinkston, and Ben Stahl. The show's first act will be an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, and your ticket gets you a glass of wine and complimentary hors d'oeuvres to accompany this spooky affair.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, 8 p.m., Oct. 12-13; 2 p.m., Oct. 14, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, $25, 253.588.0042,

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