Theater Review: Wonderful Life affirms life - again

As almost everybody knows, It’s a Wonderful Life is about George Bailey, a much beloved banker in Bedford Falls, New York, who gets into a financial bind and is on the verge of suicide when his guardian angel Clarence dives in (that’s right) to help him. What Clarence can show George is that his life hasn’t been and isn’t to be wasted: if he’d never been born, all sorts of good things would never have occurred to lots of people, and all sorts of bad things would have. But before getting to this epiphany, Clarence – and we in the audience – have to learn the whole George Bailey story, from the day in his childhood when he saved his younger brother’s life, to the series of reversals that kept him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a world traveler.

This Wonderful Life, written by Steve Murray and conceived by Mark Setlock, follows the chronology of the movie point by point, as if its creators didn’t dare alter the lineaments of a masterpiece. The difference, of course, is that no one’s on stage but Swan – and all he’s got to work with on Frank Chavez’s set are a few props including a metal stepladder, a large crate on rollers, some chairs and a couple of oddly shaped high and low platform-things. As it turns out, that’s more than enough. Proving once again that an inspired actor can take an audience just about anywhere, Swan both narrates the play and inhabits its citizens.

Here he is as Mr. Gower, the tragedy-stricken druggist whom George stops from inadvertently poisoning a young patient (if George hadn’t been born, the boy would have died and Gower would have spent twenty years in prison). Here he is as both George and Mary, when the former clumsily and peevishly tries to romance the latter, and the latter shrewdly manipulates her suitor into discovering his own intentions. When George is supposed to be heading off a run on his bank, Swan convinces us that he’s facing a mob of rattled depositors, and when George is supposed to be up on a bridge, contemplating his demise, Swan climbs the ominous stepladder and looks down anxiously on the stage below. Beautifully directed by Todd Olson, Swan doesn’t waste a single moment, efficiently and effervescently skating us through the story, and allowing us to revisit the most famous scenes in the film.

But if the play’s inventors haven’t significantly departed from Capra’s classic (and let’s not forget screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett), they have allowed for certain magical moments that are strictly theatrical. The dialogue of senior angels (stars in a starry night) discussing George’s case is more persuasive on stage than it was in the movie: and the spectacle of a snowfall touching George and the set is lovely to witness. There’s even a gravestone rising up through the bare stage floor like a visitor from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and there’s miniature money for George to throw over his head at a pivotal moment, making for another sort of, and not entirely materialist, blizzard.[dataBox]

Still, I have to repeat: this adaptation is so faithful, it makes you wonder why you haven’t simply rented the DVD. But if you don’t mind a reverent reprise of the Capra film, with several arresting special effects, you’ll find This Wonderful Life charming. Most important, it’s just as life-affirming as the original. And in any season, holiday or not, that’s a welcome, and all too rare, position for a serious work of theater to take.

Christopher Swan has been much in evidence at American Stage over the last ten years, and his marvelous performance in This Wonderful Life makes it abundantly clear why. Playing all the main characters in this theatrical adaptation of the Frank Capra Christmas favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, Swan expertly exhibits everything from George Bailey’s down-home goodness to miser Potter’s greed and viciousness, not missing along the way Mary Hatch’s gentle irony and the angel Clarence’s slightly goofy compassion. It’s not entirely clear why this remarkably faithful one man show is necessary – after all, anyone can go to their video rental store and find the classic, busy original – but if you don’t let that fundamental question interfere with your viewing, you’ll find a delightful theatrical tour de force complete with a snowfall, holiday carols, and (literally) heavenly dialogue. And you’ll see the formidable Christopher Swan skillfully mimicking Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore and even Donna Reed. If this actor were any better, he’d deserve a pair of wings himself.

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