(Sierra Madre, California) On a crisp winter’s night, George Bailey (Scott Harris) stands alone on a bridge. He is panicked, at the end of his rope. His face contorts as he struggles to find the courage to jump. Just then, a strange figure appears. In a worn overcoat and hat, the man insists that George has so much to live for, that there’s no use giving up when so many depend on him.
He introduces himself as Clarence – George’s guardian angel. Clarence (Karl Maschek), with a twinkle in his eye, reveals that, in order to receive his wings, he must talk George down and show him what a wonderful life he’s led. Thus begins It’s a Wonderful Life -- a classic holiday story adapted for the theater at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Based on the Frank Capra 1946 film starring Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life follows George Bailey’s trip down memory lane as he explores the hardships of his life. A clever, driven young man, George has faced setback after setback. He never quite fulfilled his adventurous spirit or left his small town. Whether he was sticking up for the less fortunate members of his town or wooing his sweetheart Mary Hatch (Nancy Young), George has always done what’s right.
When George cries out that he wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what his loved ones would be like, were that true. His partner and uncle Billy (Chuck Lacey) passed away years ago, as did his little brother. The corrupt tycoon, Mr. Potter (Jack Kendel), owns most of the town, and his wife Mary is a lonely old maid.
Scott Harris is particularly charming as George Bailey, bringing the character’s bumbling personality to life without settling for a Stewart imitation. Despite so much of the play dependent on him, Harris portrays the growing Bailey with indelible ease. His chemistry with Nancy Young is electric as the two fall for each other.
The supporting cast brings the play together just as much as its leads. Karl Maschek adds a wizened ruffian quality to Clarence, while Jack Kandel is deliciously deviant as the cruel old Mr. Potter. Alison Janes strikes a chord as Violet, the sultry young woman who’s always had her eye on George. She varies from magnetic to desperate in a world without him.
Many actors play several roles, including Clay Bunker as George’s friend Sam Wainright, his brother Harry, and Mr. Welch (complete with three different accents). Indeed, each member of the cast brings a memorable performance, no matter how small. (Matthew Herrman has particularly hilarious moments as Mr. Potter’s mostly silent goon.) The cast is rounded out with Matthew Bond, Paul Bond, Sophia Davis, Jesse Ellico Franks, Jennie Floyd, Elizabeth Gray, Charlotte Hardy, Chuck Hernandez, Sheila Kraics, Elaine Kratofil, Sarah Logan, Mark Mandell, Meg Momsen, Gerry Orz, and Janie Steele.
It’s a Wonderful Life is not simply a holiday story. George Bailey’s plight rings even more true this year, when so many are struggling to stay above water. Many fear the death of the American dream, but this story inspires faith in a sense of community. George Bailey remarks to Mr. Potter that the lowlifes he so despises are the ones that keep the town running. If we can maintain that sense of pride in our work and drive to soldier on, perhaps we can learn something from this classic.
Director Christine Harris acknowledges this parallel, infusing the play with a palpable sense of hope. It’s a Wonderful Life is a captivating adaptation for all ages and should not be missed this winter season.
'It’s a Wonderful Life' has extended its run through January 14, 2012 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. There will also be one Sunday matinee, January 8th at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $25 for adults, $22 for seniors (65+) and students (13-17), and $15 for children 12 and under. You can purchase tickets at their box office or online.