Close to a Classic: IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Photo: Mark Linehan* & Erin Brehm. Credit: David Costa.

Photo: Mark Linehan* & Erin Brehm. Credit: David Costa.

presented by Stoneham Theatre

adapted for the stage and directed by Weylin Symes

395 Main St. Stoneham, MA
November 23rd through December 23rd, 2012
Stoneham Theatre Facebook Page

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Stoneham) In an interview in Time Magazine, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar once quipped that every mistake he made in his first film became his signature “style” in subsequent ones. The holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t stand the test of time because it is perfect, but because of its many flaws. It is a holiday redemption story told by director Frank Capra at his most moody, and one can see why it bombed in its inaugural run at the movie houses. The script moves in a disjointed style, with a biblical fable serving as tacked-on bookends to a dark meditation on inequality in America. If not for Capra’s bold and technically-accomplished direction and the performance of a lifetime by Jimmy Stewart, the movie would be a laugher by now.

Stoneham Theatre’s staging of Weylin Symes’ theatrical adaption of Capra’s screenplay may have seemed like a safe end-of-year choice, and crowds have come in droves to see the spirited production, but this is as difficult a script as some of Shakespeare’s obscure works, and director Caitlin Lowans fails to navigate this production around many pitfalls. If not for Mark Linehan’s heart-on-sleeve performance as the desperate George Bailey and near-universal knowledge of the iconic storyline, this staging would have derailed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of the life and near-death of George Bailey, a man trying to do right by his small town in spite of himself. At wit’s end after years of struggling against the powers that be, George decides to kill himself, but he is saved by an angel who makes him see the error of his ways. The story’s structure has inherent flaws, but it succeeds because we can connect with George’s imperfect character; he is a prideful sinner who never stops trying to rise above his limitations to help the common good.

 But Symes, seemingly unable to make sense of Capra’s gangly script, chooses to condense the plot, and the action unfolds like a CliffsNotes version of the play. Because of Symes’ decision to punt on storytelling, the youngest cast-members are unfairly left to deliver key points in the first act. The action further gets muddled by poor blocking and stage design, which leaves us staring at doors that never open and wondering where the actors are wandering off to in key moments.

Just as we’re about to resign ourselves to a static-filled storyline, Linehan takes the audience by the lapels and doesn’t let go. While his performance sometimes veers too quickly to the bombastic, Linehan captures George’s internal struggles in heartbreaking detail, right down to the character’s off-handed conversations with himself. At these quiet moments of reflection, it’s as if you can see a devil and angel on his shoulders.

Kudos also go to Bobbie Steinbach, who doubles as the good and evil women in George’s life, playing both George’s mother and the moneygrubbing Mrs. Potter, the bane of George’s existence. While Linehan carefully adheres to a concept of a classic character that we all love, Steinbach underplays to perfection and creates vibrant characters out of lines that were written for melodrama. Erin Brehm also breathes fresh life into a character that too often seems a stereotypical model of female suffering, the appropriately-named Mary, George’s wife. Through Brehm’s performance, we see the strength in Mary as she bears all the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that George does, all while raising a brood of children and not jumping off a bridge.

Overall, the production too often stands on the shoulders of Capra and Stewart, and we are given a shadow of a great tale, rather than a great tale itself.

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