When It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, it was a box office flop. Completely financed by Director Frank Capra and his Liberty Films studio for $3.8 million, its total run grossed only $3.3 million and resulted in the studio going bankrupt. However, much like George Bailey in the story, the movie got a second chance when it accidentally entered the public domain due to a clerical error and tv stations all-over aired the film throughout the holidays. Thus, it’s become a classic — a symbol of the holiday season, forever part of the American consciousness.
With its beloved status, there have been numerous adaptations of the story – from stage to radio, as well as a handful of spoofs. In This Wonderful Life, currently playing at the Cleveland Play House, we’re given one of the freshest re-imaginings that I’ve seen of the inimitable original. Conceived by Mark Setlock (a Cleveland native, now living in NY) and written by Steve Murray (a longtime film, theatre and book critic turned playwright), This Wonderful Life is a one-man retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life – part re-enactment, part commentary.
This Wonderful Life is told through the eyes of one actor – James Leaming. Leaming plays both the narrator, as well as all of the characters in the film. The play opens up on a fairly empty stage with a few props and set pieces and a small control panel. After talking to a few audience members before the show, Leaming casually enters the stage and delivers probably the best pre-show, turn-off-your-cell-phones speech I’ve ever heard. The show starts off with Leaming talking to the audience – very deftly putting the audience at ease.
As a one-man show, This Wonderful Life was completely dependent upon its leading man – even moreso than The Kite Runner which was similarly dependent upon the success of its narrator (Jos Viramontes in the role of Amir). The one-man show is the marathon of acting — with one actor having to learn how to not just be a narrator guiding the story, but also how to distinguish a variety of characters from one another through his actions and voice. Leaming delivers on a 30+ character marathon for an hour and half without intermission.
Leaming struck an excellent balance between the script’s irreverence towards and insight into the original film. Much like a group of loved ones celebrating the holidays together, there were a number of comedic moments that poked gentle fun at It’s A Wonderful Life and the times it was filmed in – one of the funniest bits was Leaming talking about George and Mary’s first lipless, face-smashing kiss. However, it managed to be funny without being callous — the same sort of jesting we would do if we were watching it in our living rooms.
He also provided a heartfelt insight into the film. About how it’s become a part of the American psyche, why George Bailey’s challenges resonates so strongly with us. At a particularly life-changing moment in George’s story, Leaming realizes that this holiday classic is not in fact a movie about Christmas and the holidays, but instead about every other day of the year and the hard decisions we have to make that get us from day to day.
Leaming portrayed the town of Bedford Falls not just with his voice (though he did spot-on depictions of Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey, Mr. Potter and Clarence), but he also brought a great physicality to it. Often with one-man shows, you don’t have widesweeping action because you’re limited to how far one actor can move in a scene. However, Leaming was all over the place during scenes — magically exiting one side of the stage and while the action still seemed to be going on (thanks to a few well-timed sound cues), then entering from the other side of the stage. And a soaring dive from the top of a staircase surprised everyone.
Although it was a one-man show, the technical aspects of the show played such an important part in the production that they were almost like another actor. The set itself was fairly straightforward with a small handful of set pieces and props including a desk, easel to prop up a few signs, and rolling staircase. However, the lighting and sound cues created a fully vibrant Bedford Falls, Clarence and the angels, and a complement to Leaming – allowing him to play off of something much like another actor would. Together, Leaming and the Play House artistic staff brought the wonder of the film to the stage.
When we went to see This Wonderful Life, our evening was bookended by two free events offered throughout the show’s run: a preshow discussion of the play and the Cleveland Play House’s ongoing Festival of Trees celebration.
Prior to every performance, the Play House offers a free pre-show discussion for audience members. It generally starts 45 minutes before curtain and when we attended Tuesday night, Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley hosted the conversation. We talked a lot about the film’s history and random pieces of trivia, as well as why it’s made such a lasting impression on the American psyche. Although we also talked very briefly about the play, the purpose of the pre-show discussion was not to cover what we were about to see but to put the performance into a context that would make for a fuller viewing experience. The Play House generally offers this pre-show discussion for each production, as well as post-show discussions after every third Wednesday evening performance and every third Sunday matinee.
The Festival of Trees runs from now until December 30. It’s free and open to the public, featuring more than 70 locally sponsored and professionally decorated holiday trees displayed throughout the Cleveland Play House. We looked at a few on our way to the pre-show discussion as well as after the show while they were turning off the lights in parts of the building. It was a beautiful site to see the variety of decorations – from the traditionally decked out Christmas trees, to trees that uniquely featured the Cleveland organizations they were sponsored by. I loved the dog angel on top of the Cleveland APL’s tree, but the tree for the women pilots association was my absolute favorite.
If you’re planning on visiting the Play House and want to take a long lunch break next Thursday, they will be hosting a Holiday Luncheon starting at 11 am on Dec. 9. Guests can enjoy a self-guided tour of the Festival’s trees, followed by a holiday program featuring a reading by Associate Artistic Director Kepley. Boxed lunches will be then served among the tree display prior to the Matinee performance of This Wonderful Life. Tickets are $20 for the Holiday Program and Luncheon or $49 for Holiday Program, Luncheon and Matinee and can be purchased by calling 216.795.7000 ext. 4.
After the Play House announced last year that its five-year run of A Christmas Story was coming to an end, some may have wondered if anything could replace the Cleveland staple. With This Wonderful Life, they’ve re-introduced us to another holiday treasure. Whether you see it at the Holiday Luncheon or go to one of the other performances prior to Dec. 19, a visit to the Play House is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays in Cleveland.
This Wonderful Life / The Cleveland Play House 411: