Wonderful Life

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Editorial Review

It’s a predictable, feel-good ‘Wonderful Life’

By Celia Wren
Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011

There's a moment in "Wonderful Life," a workmanlike new one-man show based on the 1946 Frank Capra movie, when realism threatens to break through the fog of schmaltz. Actor Jason Lott has been trotting out sketches of the film's characters, conjuring up a portrait of good-hearted wholesomeness in the town of Bedford Falls. We learn that a ruthless banker has been menacing that wholesomeness - yes, indeedy! And then, fleetingly and surprisingly, this offering from the Hub Theatre humanizes the banker. Lott's gruff, sermonizing Mr. Potter, a polio victim, struggles to stand up, and for a moment, it's unclear if he'll succeed. His body hovers in a stiff, half-straightened position, fighting against gravity and age. You can't help but empathize with the guy.

Unfortunately, after that inkling of nuance - that invitation to explore complex emotion and maybe a little valuable ambivalence - this world premiere slides back into its simplistic, feel-good groove. Admittedly, you would hardly expect more from an adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life," a film that famously starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a self-sacrificing family man who learns, one Christmas, that he has unwittingly blessed the lives of those around him. Aware of the story's timely themes - who is George Bailey but an Occupy Bedford Falls organizer waiting to happen? - Lott and Hub artistic director Helen Pafumi have co-adapted the movie, generating a 70-minute entertainment that presses all the requisite syrupy buttons.

Given the film's popularity and the theater field's unflagging appetite for holiday programming and small-cast shows, "Wonderful Life" could well have an active future on stages around the country. Certainly Lott, in his performer capacity, and director Gregg Henry have, within the limits of the material, given the piece a respectable launch at the John Swayze Theatre in Fairfax.

Brooke A. Robbins supplies the spare, suggestive set: a bench and a few dangling lanterns and old-fashioned signs - including a sign for the Bailey family's savings and loan business. After George's dimwitted uncle misplaces a wad of cash, the institution faces ruin, and George contemplates suicide. Rescuing him from this fate is Clarence, a homespun angel who doesn't have wings but is hoping to earn them soon, gosh darn it!

Wearing the same brown suit throughout, Lott channels George, Clarence and a host of other personalities, using shifts in voice and body language as distinguishing markers. Clarence blinks a lot; George's wife, Mary, has clasped hands and a high, demure speaking tone; an impoverished drunk has a crooked back and twisted face, like a melodrama archetype; and so on. Lighting designer Kyle Grant and sound designer Thomas Sowers help with the transformations, too: Deeper pools of shadow wash across Potter, underscoring his villainy, for instance, while the sound of clinking glasses accompanies remarks by the bar owner Martini.

A lively and appealing actor, Lott squeezes some broad comedy into this character parade - in his evocation of a guffawing, elbow-nudging entrepreneur, for example - and he renders the tale's treacly sections with conviction. Still, given the times we're in, what's most striking about "Wonderful Life" is not the story's human dimension, but its take on economics: Like the movie, the play peddles a vision of a financial ecosystem that's wholly comprehensible to the layperson, where fiscal crisis can be a matter of physically mislaid greenbacks, rather than, say, credit default swaps or European sovereign debt issues.

If only reality were so straightforward.