Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2008
Somewhere along the joyous roller-coaster ride that is the Barrington Stage production of This Wonderful Life I gleaned the following: It’s not about Christmas, its all about money.
The “it” in question is Frank Capra’s iconic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life which, although it is habitually shown on TV at Christmas time, is not about Christmas, even though its final scene takes place on Christmas Eve. The Christmas images we see in it are trees and tinsel, bells and snow. A major character is an angel, but there is really not much religiosity in the script. It’s not about Christmas, its all about money.
Money is the one thing that is wrong in George Bailey’s wonderful life – which is filled with friends and family and good works – and the thing that ultimately saves it.
As actor Tom Beckett, who comprises the entire cast of this amazing show, said in a recent interview in The Berkshire Eagle; “This show wasn’t written to be as timely as it is.” And he’s right. At this moment in time, the Mr. Potters of the world are much in evidence, as are their manipulations of American life and culture. And it is Christmas time, a time that has become all about money when it should be about friends and family and good works – and maybe even God.
This 2005 one-man play, conceived by Mark Setlock, (whose Fully Committed and Pageant Play have both had successful Berkshire runs recently), and written by Steve Murray, is all about Capra’s movie. Our Narrator, who never introduces himself by name, literally dashes on to the stage and exclaims: “I Love It’s a Wonderful Life. I love it so much, I want to do it all for you myself. Ready?” And ready or not, off he goes, playing every character, reenacting all the best scenes, with the irrepressible foolish energy of a three month old Golden Retriver. In my imagination once the show is over Beckett goes backstage and falls into one of those deep, impenetrable sleeps that bless infants of all species.
True confessions time: I have STILL never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, but this is the second stage incarnation of the story that I have encountered, the first having been NYSTI’s 2006 holiday presentation of the 1986 musical version. This current vogue for recreating everyone’s favorite movie on stage is puzzling to me, but then I never go to the movies and have no favorites. The closest I have come to what most theatergoers must experience watching This Wonderful Life was when I saw Monty Python’s Spamalot and famously asked my son why everyone was laughing after the jokes, instead of before. Didn’t they KNOW what was coming? Well, not if they haven’t seen and memorized the movie, Gail, DUH!
But when you see you favorite film on stage you are guaranteed that it will not be your favorite film and it will not feature your favorite film stars – in this case because they are mostly dead – all you will have left are the words and some feeble real-life attempt to recreate the phantom world you see on screen. The Wizard of Oz (the national tour is coming to Proctor’s the week after Christmas) is a prime example of a beloved film that is impossible to recreate on stage, and yet people flock to see the attempt.
Tom Beckett is not Jimmy Stewart – or Donna Reed or Lionel Barrymore or any of the other excellent folks who appeared in the film – and Brian Prather and Kelly Syring’s tremendously inventive set only hints at the beauties of Bedford Falls through the years, and yet this production, under Andrew Volkoff’s energetic direction, is a ton of fun. And the fact that I got a kick out of it proves that you don’t have to know It’s a Wonderful Life word-for-word to enjoy yourself at this show.
I have seldom seen a more seamless production technically. Brad Berridge’s sound design and Jeff Davis’ lighting must be timed to mesh perfectly with Beckett’s performance, and they are. The minimal costumes by Jacob A Climer, the props, and Prather and Syring’s movable set pieces, greatly enhanced by Davis’ lights, help Beckett change time, place, and character rapidly and flawlessly. Even when a minor mishap occurred (a rolling chair took a little detour off the edge of the stage down right) Beckett covered smoothly, much to the audience’s delight. Kudos also to Production Stage Manager Renee Lutz who is keeping all this running behind the scenes.
As the Christ is increasingly removed from Christmas, regional theatres are leaning more and more towards presenting secular seasonal fare that reinforce how most Americans actually experience, or wish they could experience, Christmas – in the home, in the stores, and at the movies. This Wonderful Life wraps idyllic home life, the anguish associated with both the abundance and scarcity of money, and the picture-perfect world of Hollywood into one bright, beribboned package that is excellent entertainment. If, like me, you hate A Christmas Carol and are tired of being Nutcracker-ed to death, this is the holiday treat for you.
The Barrington Stage Company production of the This Wonderful Life runs through December 20 at the Stage 2 space in the VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs 85 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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