This Wonderful Life by Steve Murray, conceived by Mark Setlock, based on the film "Itís a Wonderful Life," screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, based on a short story "The Greatest Gift" written by Philip Van Doren. Directed by Andrew Volkoff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Tom Beckett as George Bailey; photo: Kevin Sprague
Beckett as Clarence; photo: Kevin Sprague
"...image of a man standing alone on a bridge..."
In one hour and twenty-one minutes a single actor plays out the full 129 minute film, "Itís a Wonderful Life" twice in the Holiday offering "This Wonderful Life" currently on stage at Barrington Stage Companyís second space. Once would have been sufficient.
I must admit that I am not the greatest fan of the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart movie. Neither was Capra who saw it as an interim piece in his career; he never understood its surge to iconic status and I certainly donít. Itís a nice, agreeable comedy about a man who discovers that for his entire life he has been intent on all the wrong things and has never understood his importance in his tiny, confined world. When he does he becomes a man who smiles more. End of story.
In this new stage adaptation (and there are no credits for the film or story creators in the Barrington program, but it is an adaptation and announced as such in the playís monologue) a Narrator, supposedly an actor backstage on the excellent set designed by Brian Prather and Kelly Syring, performs in less than two pages a precis of the entire film changing characters as needed and he does a wonderful job with this quick-change version which ends with a bow and blackout. A perfect rendition of the movie as far as I was concerned. Then, apologetically, he redoes the piece, from beginning to end, taking on more than 30 characters and replaying for us every aspect of the Capra creation.
It isnít boring. There are moments that are actually fun, moving, effectively dramatic or comedic. But those are moments and not the full performance. Tom Beckett, as the Narrator, is clearly a talented actor. What he is not, however, is a good mimic. While Jimmy Stewart, the George Bailey of the film, is cleanly realized in body and voice, none of the other actors in the movie are represented with any respect to voice, face, attitude or style. Lionel Barrymoreís old man Potter, the villain of the film, never emerges in a recognizable form and Barrymore has one of those quavery voices that is so easy for a good actor/mimic to play. Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy, somehow comes across as an old Irish actor - go figure. Henry Travers, the angel Clarence, has a very specific sort of pinched, clipped voice that is not even approached by Beckett.
Unlike other actors who have presented one-man shows for Barrington Stage, most directed by Volkoff, Beckett makes no pretense in his presentation of becoming the characters or the actors who played them for this show. Instead he presents an actor of limited range who loves the movie and cannot wait to show you how well he has memorized the lines. The good lines from the movie still come across as good and effective lines. It is simply that the characters who say those words are not a part of his performance. He is almost always just this narrator, backstage somewhere, reciting the movie. I donít know if this is the choice of the actor or the director but it is not really the best way to go with a play like this.
We want to be transported through his enthusiasm into the world he clearly worships. We want to be as enthralled by "...Wonderful Life" as he obviously is since he canít wait to perform it. However, we want to understand the depths of feeling coming from soft-voiced Donna Reed, the sultry elusiveness of a Gloria Grahame, the crippled mental processes of H.B. Warnerís druggist, the goofiness of George Baileyís best friend Sam Wainwright as Frank Albertson played him. These and so many other characters in this film are what make the picture interesting. Their faces and voices are specific and Capra cast them for the qualities they brought to their roles. These qualities are missing in the play as performed and without them we just have a memorization ego in front of us and while it really is nice, it isnít enough.
Jacob A. Climerís costume is a reasonable outfit, nondescript and non-period, but is it something an actor, backstage, would be wearing? Iíve rarely seen someone dressed that way in any theater Iíve worked in or visited. Brad Berridgeís sound design works well and there are some pre-recorded bits - called for in the script - that make some scenes playable. In one of them there is a fun bit of lighting design by Jeff Davis as two chandeliers and a "special" converse. When the Narrator comments on the lighting "These are the special effects" you know youíre in for a shaky evening of technical theater, but Davis does some beautiful things with color and effect and his use of night-light for the master sequence of the show - the no George Bailey period - is exquisite.
"This Wonderful Life" could have been called - as a friend of mine suggested - "This Onederful Life" and it would have been a more accurate title for a show where one actor recites the roles of so many. To be truly "wonderful" he would have had to go that extra mile and brought to life the characters as we remember them. That would have been the tour-de-force we hope for in such a presentation and it might have made me truly love the piece, rather than just respect the effort.
This Wonderful Life plays at BSCís Stage 2 space located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through December 20. Tickets range in price from $15 to $30. For schedules and reservations call the box office at 413-236-8888 or check on line at barringtonstageco.org.