One-Man Town

A single performer misses the holiday magic

Okay, I admit it, I'm an It's A Wonderful Life whore. If I see the classic Frank Capra flick listed on cable for another marathon run, I'm right there sobbing into my popcorn like John Boehner at a podium. So I was completely ready for the one-person stage adaptation, This Wonderful Life, now at the Cleveland Play House.

But now I feel a bit like Uncle Billy, looking in vain for the bundle of cash he misplaced and wondering what went wrong. It seems like everything should have been in place for this production, since the one-performer concept by Mark Setlock is certainly intriguing. And writer Steve Murray hews so close to the original "life is worth living" theme, it feels grafted on.

But part of the problem is that the show's creators, and to a lesser extent director Peter Amster, never decide whether this will be a heart-tugging retelling of the original tale or an irreverent commentary with snarky if apt asides. Indeed, it seems that Setlock and Murray want it both ways. And tough as it would have been to pull off, a better performance might have made it happen.

As the lone actor on stage, James Leaming gets off to an unbalanced start prior to the curtain by appearing in the audience and chatting up patrons while dressed in a 1940s-style three-piece suit. The costume is confusing, since the play is written from the point of view of a contemporary guy who wants to tell us about a movie he loves.

Once on stage, the earnest, hard-working Leaming provides a detailed description of the plot. For virgins and devotees alike, this synopsis of the Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed original is a threadbare way to engage with the classic and makes Leaming's acting task more daunting.

Of course, Leaming also delivers lines as various characters, but it's uncertain whether he's trying to mimic the voices of the film's cast or not. He does a passable aw-shucks Stewart as George Bailey, and a pretty good rendition of Henry Travers' dippy angel-in-training Clarence. But his Mr. Potter falls far short of Lionel Barrymore's gruff and gravelly nastiness, and his Mary Bailey just sounds like a prissy pain in the ass.

Some speeches are delivered in their entirety. But since Leaming doesn't fully explore the small but telling physical and vocal quirks of each character, these speeches feel exposed and lifeless.

Occasionally, though, adapter Murray can be most amusing. He has the narrator snidely wonder, for instance, how this small backwater of Bedford Falls found the financial chops to install a retractable gym floor over an Olympic-size swimming pool, so that George and Mary could fall into the water and thence in love.

But there are troubling issues as well, including the rather half-hearted set design by Jeffrey W. Dean. This features an industrial gray, rolling metal staircase to represent George's fateful bridge, while also doubling as the oft-trod staircase in the Bailey home, where the ever-loose finial is simply set on a sad "newel post" stuck to the stairway platform.

Ultimately, however, it's the lack of clear focus and inventiveness on stage that undermines this well-meaning effort.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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