By Martin F. Kohn
If you’re impressed, and you should be, by the thought of one actor convincingly performing the entire movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” what would you make of one actor doing the entire movie in less than 60 seconds?
That’s how John Lepard begins “This Wonderful Life,” playwright Steve Murray’s one-man stage version of the classic film, at Williamston Theatre. Then Lepard (and Murray) get down to the business at hand, an artful, delightful 80-minute retelling of the 1946 movie that packs the narrative substance, multiplicity of characters, humor and emotional impact of the original while trimming it by a good 45 minutes. It’ll get you home in time to see the Frank Capra opus on TV this holiday season but eliminates the need altogether.
Directed by Tony Caselli, Lepard accomplishes all this with only a few props and set pieces – a few stairs, a railing for the bridge, a Christmas tree, a telephone, a stool and, most importantly, a desk that moves on silent casters and plays the drugstore soda fountain, Old Man Potter’s desk, George Bailey’s dining room table and a variety of other characters.
All the preceding references are familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie, but you kids in the audience can experience the pleasure of discovering the story and shouldn’t have any trouble following it. There’s enough narrative connective tissue between scenes and Lepard makes it abundantly clear who’s speaking, even when the conversation becomes rapid-fire. For instance, when our hero George Bailey and Mary, his high school sweetheart (later his wife), are talking while dancing, Lepard changes his voice and his arm positions back and forth.
For his George, Lepard does a consistently moderate James Stewart, not a distracting, full-out impression. He affects a terrific array of old-guy voices (and the accompanying faces and movements) as mean and stingy Mr. Potter; bumbling, warmhearted Clarence the Angel; drunken Uncle Billy and gruff druggist Mr. Gower. He never lapses into caricature as the play’s women and children and he has gentle fun with a couple of 1940s characters who wouldn’t be depicted that way today: Annie, the Baileys’ African-American maid, Mr. Martini, the Italian-American who started his tavern with a loan from Bailey’s small-town bank.
Caselli has Lepard using every part of the stage; everybody in the audience gets a few close-ups, a deal-sweetener in a theater that’s already intimate. Lepard’s seamless transitions and breezy demeanor disguise how hard he’s working.
This is a challenge any actor faces in a solo play. One that seems especially similar is “Fully Committed,” Becky Mode’s comedy in which one actor plays a reservations clerk at an ultra-trendy restaurant and a plethora of employees and patrons. The program for “This Wonderful Life” credits one Mark Setlock for the concept, the same Mark Setlock who created characters on which “Fully Committed” is based and who was its original cast.
Whatever richness Lepard, the script and Bartley H. Bauer’s set can’t provide are supplied by Reid G. Johnson’s lighting, which goes beyond illumination to include appropriate signage and a hint of angels on high; Quintessa Gallinat’s ambient sounds and stage manager Stefanie Din making everything happen just the way it should.
As George Bailey himself might put it, Attaboy, John. Attaboy, Tony…
‘This Wonderful Life’
Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam Rd., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 20. $18-$24. 517-655-7469. http://www.williamstontheatre.org