Friday, December 9, 2011
Theater review: It’s a Wonderful Life at Theatre Arlington
This production will be worth nurturing over time.
I am going to sit on my metaphorical soap box as I type this review and speak in defense of It's a Wonderful Life ... as a film, a play, and as an institution.
First, the timeless classic film-version of 1946 seems to have received an unnecessarily bad rap from many avid film-goers and those less cultured alike. There is a complaint that it airs too often on television. There was a time that It's A Wonderful Life could seemingly be seen on any station of any hour, but this is simply no longer the case. For well over a decade, the NBC network purchased exclusive rights to air the film and does so only once a year to preserve the integrity of the film's prestige, without saturating the market.
Second, I've heard grumblings from theatre critics, patrons, and actors for years that a film as beloved as Frank Capra's has no right being reproduced as a stage production. I disagree. Capra's life examination of an average man is a grand story with an epic scope. It deserves as much revisiting as The Importance of Being Earnest or To Kill a Mockingbird. Good stories demand to be told no matter the chosen medium.
Third, if you, the reader, believe that it's OK for It's a Wonderful Life to be viewed in color instead of its original, pristine black & white glory, then you may stop reading now, as this play will not be for you. I, however, am a purist of the film. I regard it as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but one that I estimate has been seen by me in its entirety more than 50 times. This, because I've never considered it to be simply a holiday film and have been known to plop it in a player during any season.
As directed by Valerie Galloway Chapa, Theatre Arlington's production of It's a Wonderful Life (playing through December 18) was not a re-interpretation or re-imagining, but a re-creation. There were certainly missteps along the way, but I was taken in by its faithfulness, reverence, and the high energy from a well-rounded cast with a solid commitment to the material.
It helped that the script itself managed one specific improvement from the original source material. Adapted by James W. Rodgers, gone was the cheesy storytelling framework with God, Joseph, and Clarence doing voiceovers to blinking stars against a black backdrop. Instead, Rodgers heightened the action immediately by showing George Bailey at his darkest hour as he was about to throw himself over a bridge into icy, dead waters. The heart of the story had always been the relationship between the angel Clarence and George Bailey. This relationship was wisely chosen as the new framework of George's life.
I admit that I was not determined at the outset to appreciate William Kledas' performance in the role of George Bailey. The cards are stacked against any actor taking on a role originally made famous by the great Jimmy Stewart. His first appearance seemed to be chock full of physical affectations of the character's nervous ticks that seemed mere technique rather than a living, breathing performance; however, by the end of the play Kledas had won me over with his intense and methodical commitment, especially in the second act when he declined the job offer of working for the hated real estate developer, Mr. Potter, played by Scott Kimball.
Kledas was well-matched to Joe Chapa's Clarence. With his delicate voice, combined with a Sancho Panza physique, Chapa never pushed too far into the realm of fantasy, and grounded the character in a very real world. He was a perfect fit for the role, although at times he could have afforded to be more playful as he dealt with George's interrogations of his identity.
Erin Elliot played Mary Hatch, George Bailey's wife. The age difference between the two was apparent but never distracting, as her costume draped her appropriately to look older. Elliot was poised and polished, and exhibited very natural maternal instincts that the role required. Styling her hair similar to that of Lana Turner was an appropriate touch and helped to age and mature the actress.
There are a handful of actors that succeed in making his/her role uniquely their own. Kim Hankins was priceless as Mary Hatch's nosy mother. Sam Burkett was captivating in what few moments he had as Mr. Welch, who was responsible for George's bloody lip. Abigail Herring as Violet Peterson gave the most convincing contrast between George's reality and George's hypothetical world without him.
The rest of the cast was full of earnest actors, hitting their marks, and keeping the story moving along; however, the story's pace was so quick that the rhythm didn't always feel natural. I believe that director Chapa was aiming for the pacing and rhythm of the original film but the truth was, at over two hours in length, the film was just as rapidly paced as this stage version. Capra had the advantage of celluloid to tell this story, editing and framing the shots to expose only what he wanted you to see. Given a live audience, the cast may have been dealing with a hindrance that was unavoidable.
Like the film, this play was remembered for its moments. The famous telephone sequence between Mary and George was present, and it was surprisingly effective from afar, juxtaposed with Sam Wainwright downstage, played by the charming Gary Eoff. The pinnacle moment of George Bailey praying to God, perhaps for the first time, was very chilling.
The transition to a life where George was never born was rough. Out sauntered four of George's old pals in a drunken stupor. Whether written or as directed, this moment rang not only false but it came across as farcical and upstaged the dramatic entrance of Gower. A lack of contrast to this scene made it difficult to trust the rest of the George was never born sequence. Thankfully, Linda Rose was effective enough as Mother Bailey, and the un-reunion of George and Mary was hauntingly jarring.
Scenic artist Jennye James, Costume Designer Chris Hatcher, and Set Designer Jack Hardaway did a remarkable job with the look and style of this production. It would have been a cheat to fill the space with an array of color; however, you can't name a character "Violet" and not put her in something symbolic of their namesake. The stage was wisely dark and muted, with all the characters costumed in slick gray three-piece suits or black skirts. All of this combined to make the faces of the actors pop out, and this elevated the re-creation of the film to as close to the feel of a black and white film as you can get and still be a live stage production.
This also allowed director Chapa the opportunity to create many lovely stage compositions of which she took full advantage. The George and Mary phone conversation segueing right into the wedding was a lovely touch.
I am told by my colleagues that It's a Wonderful Life is a part of Theatre Arlington's holiday rotation. I hope it continues to be a part of their traditional repertoire. It is not a perfect production, but there are so many elements going for it that I believe this production will be worth nurturing over time.
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