Review: “It’s A Wonderful Life” at Greater Boston Stage Company

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Ashley DiFranza

  • Contributing Critic - Boston

Greater Boston Stage Company provides a theatrical take on a classic Christmas story with its production of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Similar to the beloved film, the stage version, which has been adapted from Frank Capra’s original screenplay by Weylin Symes, features many of the same famous characters, themes, and morals, with a couple unique elements that turn this well-known tale into something fresh and new.

For those not familiar with the powerful story, this play follows the life of George Bailey, a lovable dreamer who wants so much out of his life and yet becomes increasingly unhappy with how things are turning out. Through a series of events audiences witness firsthand, George’s outlook becomes increasingly dark and, in a particularly low moment, he decides the world would be better off without him in it and tries to end his life. What he doesn’t account for is the interference of the angel Clarence, whose job it is to help George learn the incredible positive impact that his actions and decisions have had on the lives of those around him. With timeless themes of love, regret, and second chances, this play explores the incredible impact one person can have on a community, and leaves audiences reflecting on the variety of moments in life, both good in bad, that make it so wonderful.

Co-directed by Tonasia Jones and Tyler Rosati, this production does a great job of taking a classic tale originally told on the screen and layering in theatrical elements that make it come to life on stage. From the intriguing set, designed by Sarah Rozene and featuring a raised and intricate bridge that acts as a centerpiece for the play, to the many unique directing concepts used to highlight the idea of storytelling explored within the piece, the time and effort put into molding this production into something fresh for audiences is obvious from the first moment the actors take the stage.

One particularly successful directing choice is the dynamic use of the ensemble within this production. Made up of fifteen actors, this group is used to not only represent many of the secondary characters in George’s life, but also to move set pieces, create certain sound effects within the story, and even provide musical underscoring to many transitional or intimate moments in George’s life. An approach that could not have been accomplished without the incredible commitment and talent of the actors that make up this group, this choice effectively shapes the world of the play for audiences in a way that is very necessary in a piece that tells such a complex story over such a broad timeline.

Another successful directing choice Jones and Rosati utilize within this production is the minimal use of set pieces. Apart from the bridge, the show relies on only a handful of other items to transform the stage into the various locations touched upon in the story, including a doorway, a piano, and a handful of chairs. With so much changing around these few set pieces—including the characters each actor portrays and the timeline of the story—this choice allows each set piece to really ground the scene at hand, while still showing a subtle and artistic transformation of the space. The doorway in particular, for example, is moved all around the stage, representing the entrance to the pharmacy, George’s childhood home, his office, Mrs. Potter’s house, his home with Mary, and more. Tactics like this, in Jones and Rosati’s creative hands, provide the elements of theatricality needed to make this piece worth of transitioning off the screen and onto the stage.

Although many of Jones and Rosati’s directing choices do benefit the unique telling of this story, there are a few concepts that appear to be attempted within this piece without being fully flushed out. This includes choices such as transforming the bridge set to represent locations throughout the story, which is only done once at the start of the piece by adding a curtain to a railing and making it appear an interior of the Bailey home, and then never done again. Similarly, the choice to have actors on the edges of the scenes, almost watching the story unfold before entering into it at different intervals, is one which does not always work. Because the actors only appear on the edges of the stage at certain times, and always in different amounts, their purpose in the overall telling of the story becomes unclear and harder to follow. While, in general, one can absolutely appreciate the effort these directors put into making more artistic and conceptual choices like these, the piece could benefit from a bit more focus on these elements.

In a production with so much artistic depth and such a strong story to tell, the best choices an actor can make are subtle ones that support the overall piece, and in this production that is what the majority of the cast brings to their roles. In fact, many of them make the navigation of this appear effortless, portraying characters that are dynamic, well developed, and that each provide a slightly different point of insight for the audience into George Bailey’s life. Stand outs among the cast in this regard include Marge Dunn’s delicate and natural performance of George’s wife Mary, Margaret Ann Brady’s commanding and conniving portrayal of Mrs. Potter specifically, William Gardiner’s gentle and honest representation of the famous angel Clarence, and even ensemble member Bryan Miner’s light and comedic takes on both the characters of Martini and Mary’s mother.

Yet, the performance that could have most benefitted from this subtly, is actually that of George Bailey himself. Where George is traditionally played as an endearing man who dreams of bettering himself and creating a future he can be proud of, Stewart Evan Smith’s take on the role is a George that is far more arrogant and overbearing. While one can commend the actor for exploring new interpretations of such a well-known character, unfortunately the extreme nature of Smith’s approach creates a distance between the audience and the character that detracts from the intimacy of the story. And where a choice like this may have made sense strategically, for example, if it had been one which allowed George somewhere to go in terms of his overall character development after he has his encounter with Clarence, in this production, even as George embarks on this profound journey and sees what life would have been like without him, the actor misses the necessary moments of contemplation and reflection needed to really earn his epiphany and subsequent happy ending we all know and love.

Overall, however, the power of this story still comes across for audiences thanks to the strong creative choices made by directing team, and the incredible talent and commitment of the ensemble. Be sure to visit Greater Boston Stage Company this season for an exciting take on this classic tale and a night of theater you won’t soon forget.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” runs through December 23rd at Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets visit www.greaterbostonstage.org or contact the Box Office at (781) 279-2200. Greater Boston Stage Company is located at 295 Main Street in Stoneham, MA.