By John Quinn
To what can we attribute the enduring popularity of "It's a Wonderful Life"? It was the only movie finished by Liberty Films under its founder, director-turned-auteur Frank Capra. To cover production delays on another project, RKO, the distributor, rushed it into theaters and smack into competition with Goldwyn Pictures "The Best Years of Our Lives." That film walked away with the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1946 and six other Oscars; "Lives" didn't break even in its first run. Some critics found the plot too sappy.
So what would motivate playwright Steve Murray to reinvent Capra's film as a stage piece, "This Wonderful Life"? And why would veteran director Tony Caselli mount this project – thrice? Finally, why would local favorite John Lepard assume the challenge of telling the story all by his lonesome – this time at Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor rather than his usual home base in Williamston, where he earned a Wilde Award for the 2009 staging of this production?
Well, perspectives change. Perceptions change. In 2006 "It's a Wonderful life" was ranked as the #1 Most Powerful Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute, and #11 of best American films ever. Ultimately, though, what remains constant is that it is one heck of good story.
Bedford Falls is a sleepy town somewhere in New York. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, married and father of four, stands on the bridge above the falls and contemplates suicide. His dreams of education and travel were short circuited by his father's sudden death, as George stepped in to run the family business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. That esteemed institution is about to fail an audit. George's rummy uncle Billy lost the eight thousand dollar deposit needed to balance the books.
His course is changed by divine intervention. Heaven sends a guardian angel – second class. Clarence grants George's wish that he had never lived and shows him what the sorry state Bedford Falls would have been without him. "Strange, isn't it?" says Clarence. "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
Staggered by the size of that hole, George recants his wish. His faith in himself restored; his faith in his fellow man is rewarded by an outpour of generosity from the townsfolk he assisted through the years.
So how do you turn a Hollywood film into a stage play? Murray didn't; he's crafted a story based on the movie's plot. John Lepard demonstrates mastery of an art form far older and closer to the heart than drama: storytelling. But, although there's a stool upon which he could perch and merely recite, Caselli has Lepard playing all over the fragmentary set, originally designed by Bart Bauer, which represents the totality of Bedford Falls.
In what must be an exhausting time onstage, Lepard narrates and commentates and captures the essence of character through nuanced body language and some striking vocal impersonations .The ease with which he rapidly moves between James Stewart's (Capra's George Bailey) trademark west Pennsylvania drawl and Donna Reed's (George's wife, Mary) demure, almost shy, line reading is magical.
Quintessa Gallinat's sound design is a tapestry backdrop for the story; add Daniel C. Walker's ever-changing pools of warm light, and the two designs immediately define time and space.
I'll pose another question about "It's a Wonderful Life." Why is this chestnut dusted off for endless reruns on cable networks every year in the holiday season? It IS life-affirming and inspirational. But when all is said and done, the flick is as welcome as turkey and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving: comfort food for the soul. Its moral is best summed up in Clarence's observation, "Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends." It exemplifies Frank Capra's vision for his work. "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other."
Take that, Wes Craven! The buoyant "This Wonderful Live" has the legs to make an annual run, so here's to "Sappy Holidays" now and for years to come.
'This Wonderful Life'
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 2, 9, 16
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, 10, 17
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
1 hour, 10 minutes; no intermission