BWW Reviews: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at Theatreworks
How odd that Theatreworks should follow up Death of a Salesman, arguably the most brutal portrait of disappointed ambition, with It's a Wonderful Life, another tale of a man who suffers a series of unrealized ambitions and missed opportunities but who is held up not as a tragedy but an exemplar of a well-lived existence. If Willy Loman is the embodiment of the dark side of the American Dream, then George Bailey is the assurance that dream can be lived in simple and unexpected ways.
Certainly the cozy familiarity of It's a Wonderful Life is welcome at this time, when the nights are darkest and the temperature has turned unbearably frigid. And Joe Landry's adaptation kicks the nostalgia up a notch by telling the story in the style of a live broadcast from the golden age of radio. The audience is seated in a post-war studio (complete with snow drifting outside the window) and watch as three men and two women portray every person in Bedford Falls from little Zuzu to mean Mr. Potter while behind them a hard-working Foley artist provides music and sound effects. They even sing the commercials.
The host for the evening (Logan Ernsthal) introduces The Players before "air time," an act that gets lost in the chaos of people finding their seats and silencing their cell phones. It hardly matters, since before long we'll know them as George, Mary and the rest. Once it all gets going, it's quite easy to follow along, as Landry's script hews quite close to the classic Capra film, warts and all (it's never sat right with me that Mary's miserable fate in the absence of her husband's existence is to become-horrors!-a librarian). The cast nimbly moves between the myriad roles with ease, effortlessly communicating each personality with voice and the occasional prop. Ernsthal in particular is impressive in this respect, as taking on the roles of Mr. Potter, drunk Uncle Billy, and George's father result in several scenes where he ends up talking to himself.
John DiAntonio, in the role of George, channels Jimmy Stewart's distinctive speech patterns while still making the character his own, and has marvelous chemistry with Becca Vourvoulas as Mary. Sammie Jo Kinnett is serenely innocent and wise as Clarence, and Kate Gleason displays versatility in roles ranging from sultry Violet Bick to Zuzu. In the background, Mark Arnest provides all the right grace notes (literal and figurative) as he plays the piano and handles a variety of sound effects props with such ease that you almost never notice he's there.
Although encouraged to participate, it took the audience a little while to get into the swing of things, possibly because the production is well underway before everyone is settled. By the time George appeals to the "board of directors" on behalf of the family business, everyone was eager to play along, but some opportunities for a rousing holiday sing-along were sadly missed. In the end, though, this play is a nice warm cup of holiday cocoa, the very thing to banish the freezing cold outside.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY plays at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater now through December 22nd, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 4pm. For tickets, call 719-255-3232 or visit theatreworkscs.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Isaiah Downing
John DiAntonio and Becca Vourvoulas