It’s A Wonderful Life
Frank Capra’s classic holiday film comes to the stage at the Stoneham Theatre in a fun, faithful adaptation.
Capra’s 1946 tale of George Bailey, the reluctant but dutiful son of a banker in the Depression-era heartland, is classic of progressive ideals and family ties. It’s also a fantasy that underscores the importance of every generous, honest, hard-working man and woman by giving Bailey a chance to see the world as it would have been had he never been born -- a wish he thoughtlessly utters at the very nadir of tough times.
Young Bailey (played here by Mark Linehan, who does a charming job of channeling Jimmy Stewart) is a wonderful creation in any medium: An ambitious and clever fellow, he’s driven as much by his core decency as by his desire to get out of his small town, see the world, and do big things. As it happens, though, his energy and fundamental sense of fair play is needed right there at home after his father suddenly dies and his life’s work, not to mention the poor and vulnerable, are imperiled by greedy businesswoman Mrs. Potter (Bobbie Steinbach, effortlessly transforming the role originally played by Lionel Barrymore in the film).
George’s discontent at having to put his own plans on hold comes with satisfactions -- seeing his younger brother Harry (Michael Underhill) graduate from college and then become a war hero; helping the economically disadvantaged claim their piece of the American dream; courting and then marrying his sweetheart, Mary (Erin Brehm); becoming a father and raising a brood of kids. But throughout his years of hard work the sacrifice nags at him: He wanted to explore the world, and he’s stuck in the same little town year after year. When Mrs. Potter finds a way to ruin him, George, despondent, is ready to jump off a bridge -- and that’s when he discovers the real meaning, not of Christmas, but of his own life, with the help of a novice angel named Clarence (William Gardiner).
Stoneham Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes has translated this long-time Yuletide favorite from screen to stage with zest and energy. The production zips along with a Normal Rockwell patina of good cheer that’s reflected in everything from the performances to Jenna McFarland Lord’s Holiday Card-perfect set, an elaborate creation that sets and sustains the play’s tone. Director Caitlin Lowans infuses the stage adaptation with the film’s irrepressible spirit; this is fine American schmaltz in the best sense, an uplifting theatrical treat for the whole family.
The single quibble one might have is that where the film established the existence of George’s guardian angel Clarence from the start, here Clarence simply drops in like a deus ex machina late in the play. Those familiar with the story will accept this, of course, because they will expect it; but anyone who has never seen the movie or read the short story that inspired it may find it a puzzling left turn to suddenly have a supernatural agency crop up and take George on an American version of Scrooge’s journey in "A Christmas Carol."
On the other hand, who doesn’t know the story? This is the prototypical American fable, infused with the virtues that make us a great nation and always have. The good guys never surrender their principles, never throw the vulnerable under the bus, and manage to hold on to hope even when things seem hopeless.
If this is our "A Christmas Carol," its climax only coincidentally unfolding on Christmas Eve, its morality essentially secular in nature, and its narrative filled not with gloom and chain-clanking ghosts, but rather with frustration at not being able to do great things -- a frustration eventually leavened by the message that one does great things just by being responsible and fair -- then it’s a carol worth giving voice to every year. Stoneham Theatre brought this stage version to us in 2008, and this year does so once more.