note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
When Stoneham Theatre presented Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes’ adaptation of Christmas drama, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in 2008 as an alternative Christmas play, theatergoers cheered. The play is based on Hollywood producer-director Frank Capra’s 1946 hit movie, starring James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and Donna Reed. Capra had adapted Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, “The Greatest Gift,” written seven years earlier.
In this year’s revised production, Stoneham’s visionary director Caitlin Lowans adds her own flourishes, focusing on realism instead of fantasy. She’s capably aided by Boston favorite actors Mark Linehan, Bobbie Steinbach, and a multi-aged cast.
For older folks, this two-act, feel-good, flashback play is a touching glimpse of nostalgia. For younger folks, it’s the sad tale of George Bailey, a small-town businessman, tottering on the brink of financial ruination and suicide. Through the kindness, caring, and generosity of people he helped through the years, he ultimately realizes it’s a wonderful life after all, despite disappointments and his despicable, unethical business opponent, Mrs. Potter.
And maybe, just maybe, a cherubic, elderly fellow named Clarence Odbody, AS-2, (nicely portrayed by William Gardiner) who says he’s George’s guardian angel, trying to earn his wings, has something to do with it, too.
There are many wonderful moments, thanks to David Wilson’s magical sounds and Bailey Costa’s mood-setting lighting. Vividly recreating the pre- and post- World War II setting are Jenna McFarland Lord’s foreboding two-level streetscape of a darkly-lit bridge, sinister, wintry, cold streets, homes and offices, and with Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes.
Our unlikely hero, George, falls in love, is an awkward suitor, but happily marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary. Although this self-sacrificing couple endures many challenges, their love is delightfully heartwarming. Romantic sparks between Mark Linehan as George and Erin Brehm as Mary delight lovers in the audience.
George’s nemesis, villain Mr. Potter --- the cruel, greedy man who owns most of Bedford Falls, NY, and wants to control the rest of the town, (including George’s small, beneficent building and loan business) ---- is transformed from, into shrewd, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Potter, who speaks softly, but carries big clout.. As Potter, Bobbie Steinbach is marvelously manipulative. She surrounds herself with male lackeys, but depends on her own wait-and-see, I’ll-get-you-yet plotting that nearly ensnares Bailey into her web.
The play also focuses on George’s lost dreams and goals, but ends with his personal triumph. As a youth, George wanted to travel, attend college, and build tall buildings and cities, but his hope is derailed when his father suffers a fatal stroke. George must take over his dad’s business, or watch Mrs. Potter destroy it. His blundering Uncle Billy (Gerard Slattery) is incapable of handling it.
With Clarence’s assistance, George travels through time, experiencing what life would be like if his wish were granted - he had never been born.
Even though his situation is bleak, George learns a valuable lesson that Stoneham Theatre eloquently delivers in these uncertain times.
BOX INFO: Two-act play, based on short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, appearing through Dec. 23, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham. Tickets: $48,$44; seniors, $42,$40. Call the Box Office at 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.