Stage adaptations of films have always confused me. I understand why one would turn a play into a film, so people can pop in the DVD and watch it whenever they want, but going the opposite way — especially with a classic — seems risky. There's always the chance that what you'll end up with is a lukewarm version of the original that spurs a constant running comparison with the film in the audience members' heads.
Disappointingly, and despite some great acting, that is exactly what you get with James W. Rogers' stage adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life, presented by The Footlight Players. The play is in two acts, and is a condensed version of the movie, leaving out or shortening several scenes along the way. For those of you who are rusty on the plot, or haven't seen the film (sacrilege!), the gist is this: On Christmas Eve, George Bailey is on the verge of suicide due to impending bankruptcy. His guardian angel is sent down to help him, and goes over George's life, showing him how he has affected those around him and what it would be like if he had never been born. George realizes that he has actually had "a wonderful life," and rushes home to find that his friends and family have come bearing enough donations to save his Building and Loan business.
It's a beautiful story — in fact, the American Film Institute named It's a Wonderful Life number one on their list of America's Most Inspiring Movies, right above To Kill a Mockingbird. All this is to say that, as one of those people who puts in the movie every Christmas Eve and gets all weepy at the end as George's town rallies around him, I went in to the Footlight Players' gorgeous Queen Street theater with some trepidation over how this was going to measure up.
First, and importantly, the acting was very good. Deborah Culbreth as Mary, George's wife, was sweet, feminine, and maternal, whether she was singing "Buffalo Gals" with her husband-to-be or gently comforting her children after George, distraught, erupts at them over nothing. Gary Ludlum as George Bailey had all the earnestness and compassion of his film predecessor, Jimmy Stewart, and proved that he could handle the vast emotional range that George travels during the course of the story: from happy-go-lucky, to utterly despairing, to deeply grateful.
The Players' interpretation of Clarence, George's guardian angel, in particular was surprising and effective. Played by Bronson Taylor, this Clarence was a young man acting old, which lent poignancy to Clarence's uncertainty as to how to help George see that he is not, in fact, worth more dead than alive as he believes.
The spare staging, which makes little use of scenery except for during a couple of scenes and relied mostly on lighting and a black backdrop, evokes Our Town in a pleasantly nostalgic way — especially as It's a Wonderful Life also takes place in a small Northeastern town, in a warmly remembered past.
As director Thomas Keating acknowledges in his director's notes, this story of a good, hard-working man brought to the brink of despair by financial ruin is not only timeless, but timely, in this recessionary era. This stage production of a well-loved film, Keating says, "is a chance to see for yourself, live and in-person, the struggles of a man that could easily be any one of us." That's certainly true, and I can appreciate that sentiment: that seeing this hopeful story acted out right in front of you allows for more of a connection, more immediacy. The Footlight Players certainly do justice to these characters, and there were plenty of wet eyes and sniffles in the audience at the play's close. However, it seems to me that for any adaptation to be truly valuable, it ought to uncover something else in the story it tells — something that was hitherto hidden, or just briefly glimpsed, in the original. And while The Footlight Players do an excellent job of working with what they are given, that deeper vision is missing. Oh, well. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart are a hard act to follow.