An Exercise in Adaptation
By Blair Jackson
Robert Ford’s stage adaptation of Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” both suffers and succeeds in its limited cast and setting. In addition to the monumental challenge of recreating a beloved Christmas classic, the TheatreSquared’s stage production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” relies on a scant, seven-member cast and a small-scale, stationary backdrop. Supported by a strong script and phenomenal talent, the play excels within these limitations.
Adaptation is the key element of this play. Ford’s script serves as a wonderful adaptation to the screen version of the 1946 classic. With only seven cast members to represent a town of characters, the actors and actresses adapt fluidly to different roles as they transition between characters, costume and scene.
After 65 years of the classic film’s cultural influence, the largest challenge for this production is that it relies on the audience to adapt its expectations of the story and its presentation
In the opening scenes of the play, Coleman Ray Clark acts as George Bailey’s son, Pete. After a flurry of repositioning — banishing the Christmas tree, rolling in a counter and carrying in a few stools — Clark appears in the next scene as a young George Bailey, working as a shop boy in Mr. Gower’s store.
Audiences who are unprepared or unfamiliar with multirole performances within a single play will need time to familiarize themselves with the different faces and characters of the story. Five of the cast members switch between several different roles (sometimes within the same scene), but the fixed characters of George and Mary Bailey (Andrew Dahl and Sabrina Veroczi) serve as anchoring reference points for the audience.
Cast members also serve as stagehands by adding and removing props to prepare for the next scene. The repositioning of a table, the addition of a bench, the removal of a buffet — it all happens in front of the audience and is done with such precision and swiftness there is little time to consider the changes in setting before the next scene launches.
The methods of multirole performance and blatant scenery shifts produce two opposing effects. On one hand, there is the sense of fluttering, organized chaos, and in the first half of the play, this method borders on overwhelming as George’s life is chronicled through various scenes. Fluctuating roles paired with the repositioning of props carries the potential for confusion.
However, the script excels at using indicators in dialogue to alleviate the strain of identifying a face with a name. After a few scenes, the audience is able to trust the experience, relying on the characters to identify one another by name and thus taking the guesswork out of the transition of roles.
Once comfortable with the rotating roles and the shifting scenery, the audience can begin to appreciate the talent and skill of the actors and actresses who are portraying multiple characters. Kristopher M. Stoker, credited only as “Man #1” plays at least six different characters. Bryce Kemph (Man #2) plays seven. Kathy Legelin plays eight female characters, and young performers Sarah Behrend-Wilcox and Coleman Ray Clark play a range of characters that even include adult roles.
In one of Kemph’s scenes as Nick the bartender, a beefy roughneck with a thick Northern accent, he steps offstage and re-enters as Mr. Gower, a stooping drunkard who is ridiculed by the bar patrons. After Mr. Gower leaves the bar, he throws off his overcoat in full-view of the audience and re-enters the bar as Nick. The transformation is a testament to the method of multirole portrayal, and by allowing the audience to witness this transformation, Ford emphasizes the story’s own transformation from film to theater.
To take “It’s a Wonderful Life” and reproduce it on a big-production stage with an enormous cast would be little more than recreating the film experience. What Ford and the actors of this production have created is a brilliant mini-production that encompasses the scope of an entire town of characters. The seven members of the cast deliver a true reimagining of the story by demanding the audience lend a bit of its imagination to the experience.
Though the emotion and drama of the original story is diluted by a deluge of technique in the first half, the play’s second half offers a more streamlined approach to production, relying more on lighting changes and dialogue to indicate changes in scenery — a welcomed break from the whirling scenery shifts of the back-story. The play moves forward at a pace that mirrors George’s frantic desire to return to the life he considered ending, keeping the emotion and drama taught with expectation until those final, familiar lines:
Zuzu Bailey: Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
George Bailey: That’s right, that’s right.
George Bailey: Attaboy, Clarence.