As almost everybody knows, Its 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 (thats right) to help him. What Clarence can show George is that his life hasnt been and isnt to be wasted: if hed 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 brothers 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 didnt dare alter the lineaments of a masterpiece. The difference, of course, is that no ones on stage but Swan and all hes got to work with on Frank Chavezs 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, thats 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 hadnt 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 hes 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 doesnt 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 plays inventors havent significantly departed from Capras classic (and lets 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 Georges 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. Theres even a gravestone rising up through the bare stage floor like a visitor from Dickens Christmas Carol, and theres 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 havent simply rented the DVD. But if you dont mind a reverent reprise of the Capra film, with several arresting special effects, youll find This Wonderful Life charming. Most important, its just as life-affirming as the original. And in any season, holiday or not, thats a welcome, and all too rare, position for a serious work of theater to take.