'Wonderful Life' earns it's title

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2010

Many of us who love to read fear the arrival of movies based on our favorite books. The lead doesn't fit our imagined standards of height, sexiness or hair color. Music takes the place of lush descriptive details. Scenes occur in locales never mentioned in the book. It becomes really painful when new characters are thrown in, or the story is told in a different sequence than in the book.

Thus, I was nervous as I headed through thick snowflakes across the bridge to Douglas to see "This Wonderful Life," a one-man show based on the classic film "It's A Wonderful Life," playing through Dec. 26 at Perseverance Theatre.

Would this be a terrific movie/terrible play experience? How could one actor retell the classic holiday story any better than the Frank Capra-directed film nominated for five academy awards? Is it even possible to improve upon the kiss Jimmy Stewart plants on Donna Reed's hungry lips after the cheek-to-cheek phone call? Can a play capture the urgency of Bedford Falls' citizens demanding money from the savings and loan? Will I feel the sense of relief when the clock strikes six o'clock and the savings and loan survives? Will I giggle when George names the savings and loan's last two dollars Mama Dollar and Papa Dollar and urges them to "have a family real quick"? It wasn't only the icy roads and winter storm warnings that made me a little hesitant to venture out on a dark Juneau night to see a favorite story told in a new format.

Classic holiday music from the 1940s put me in a better mood as I waited for the show to begin this past Sunday evening. The playwright, Steve Murray, must have known his audiences would be asking the same questions, because the show begins with the solo actor directly addressing the audience: "Why are you here? To see the story? Are you sure?" Then the actor launches into a one-minute version of "It's a Wonderful Life." When he's done, he humorously suggests we could go home now, if we so desired.

What a brilliant choice by the playwright to begin his re-vision of the classic film with a 60-second preview, because it allows the audience to meet the actor and get a taste of the style of the show. In that moment, actor Ed Christian lassos us and pulls us in. With energy and enthusiasm, a tremendous vocal and physical range and the gifts of a good storyteller, Christian demonstrates we can trust him. Our favorite story will not be ruined. Play on.

Christian makes direct eye contact with us, as if we are in his living room, like a bachelor uncle at a holiday party seeking listeners for a story. Because the film in play form unfolds accurately and clearly, with all the lines we want to hear, the movie starts playing in your mind. That's how good this show is. Only a skillful actor and thoughtfully directed production could accomplish this.

The role calls for the actor to simultaneously play George Bailey as he talks to the villain Mr. Potter, George as he woos Mary, and Clarence as he talks to the depressed George. Christian offers up an array of characters, each unique and consistent. His selection of subtle indicators of each character allows us to hear and see the characters we know from the film. Better than the film, the actor as storyteller offers up comments and descriptions, to keep the time frames and characters straight and add some humor here and there. The actor asks, "So, you want to see Jimmy Stewart? I can give you Jimmy Stewart." Christian delivers lines that sound like the real thing. But Christian is not Jimmy Stewart. We didn't come to see a repeat of the movie. Like a good storyteller, Christian reverts to his version of Jimmy Stewart and he lets our imaginations fill in the picture, our picture of the story.

Sadly, the set adds very little to show. Maybe that is the point. A staircase pulled from storage, an exterior house on a stage wagon six inches off the floor with the gap masked by black fabric, an office chair from no time period offer no unity or clarity to the story. The old suitcase and phone help keep us in the time period, but set pieces did not. A light bar lowered to suggest a bridge, a very important place in this story, was creative, except how does a black pipe with clear white bulbs align with any other device in the play? Sound effects, music and recorded voices added to the performance, although I wished for more to cover the sound of the snow machine. Lighting helped us believe scenes had changed, especially the blue rectangle of the swimming pool in which George and Mary take a swim.

Time flew by. No commercials interrupted the story. All the best parts of the movie were included in the play. No new characters or scenes were added. Like a good book or movie, I did not want the play to end. Audience members chatting after the performance, some who had never seen the movie and some who watch the film every holiday, agreed with me: "This Wonderful Life" is a wonderful evening of theater.

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