Despair and desperation wait like hyenas to pounce in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra's postwar movie classic starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. And pounce they do.
As the dutiful son of a small banker, George Bailey (Stewart) seems plucked from the audience and spotlit for a gleefully harrowing display of Fortune's caprices. When he's snared by necessity into helming Bedford Falls' shaky Building and Loan, we marvel at Bailey's spirited determination to make the best of it, and gape at Capra's shameless ability to barge his way into cinematic realism and get away with it.
(Capra's peculiar skills at ennobling lost or questionable causes were indeed well-practiced, having previously engineered the Why We Fight series for Gen. George C. Marshall and the U.S. War Department.)
Director Geoffrey Kent and TheatreWorks seize on this bulbous mass of sentimentality and scalpel it down with excellent performances, brisk pacing and clean Brechtian stagecraft. Perhaps too clean. Presented here as a '40s radio drama in which we are the studio audience, Kent and company tend to sanitize It's a Wonderful Life of its darker, frenzied undercurrents, of the eerie sense of decay and shabbiness consuming Bedford Falls.
In the movie, what compels Bailey to look beyond his hometown is always as visible as the forces that harness him to it. Moreover, and to Capra's credit, Bailey is a finely etched character portrait of eroding will amid raising stakes. Not only must he single-handedly rescue the hand-to-mouth town from a Dickensian monopolist, but he must face down repeated reminders of an exciting and prosperous world elsewhere.
Generally, the atmosphere of Kent's production is a little too far on the Prairie Home Companion side of things to stand up to the original.
The scenes that work best in It's a Wonderful Life are the ones most dramatically implausible. When the actors at TheatreWorks hit their stride, however, audiences do get treated to a genuine theatrical event of amiable humor and sensitivity.
John DiAntonio as Bailey, and Sammie Joe Kinnett as Clarence the Angel, artfully steer their scenework away from its quicksand of faulty premises and create a nuanced search for meaning. Their onstage co-workers do likewise.
Kate Gleason, as Violet, is a fine and tempting, if unsuccessful, seductress to Bailey, and Becca Vourvoulas is equally appealing and resourceful as his obliging wife, Mary. Logan Ernstthal is both formidable and crafty as the malevolent Potter and other characters, too — all save DiAntonio must play multiple roles to give Bedford Falls its range of character eccentrics. Mark Arnest accompanies the action with a clever period stockpile of upstage sound effects. All contribute marvelously to an evening where what we believe to be true is often more important, and fun, than the truth.
However, it seems important to note here that the gimmicky business of corporate sponsors coming onstage in jeans to take bows and solicit more money and applause for their tax-deductible investments really ought to stop. The stage is meant, and audiences pay, for actors, designers and musicians who are expensively trained and appropriately skilled — not well-heeled philanthropists testing and goading our patronage. In this forum, it out-Capras Capra. Pray in the future TheatreWorks avoids it.