You've probably seen Frank Capra's 1946 film It's A Wonderful Life more than once. Because someone failed to renew the copyright on the film, it became a ubiquitous TV holiday presence starting in the mid-1970s. Although it was a box-office flop 60 years ago, its constant exposure on the airwaves made the story a sentimental favorite and Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey an iconic character. If you know the film, then This Wonderful Life at the Cincinnati Playhouse won't hold any surprises for you. (If you've forgotten some of the details, this 70-minute production opens with a 60-second highlights reel encapsulating most of the elements people love.)
The real wonder of This Wonderful Life is that one actor, Harry Bouvy, all by himself, presents the whole story. The fact that he's retelling a story we all know is no detriment to the show's success. Near me on opening night someone occasionally whispered a line right along with George, delighted at the nostalgic recognition.
Bouvy flows seamlessly from one character to another; no doubt he's been aided by director Martha Banta, who staged the first production of this show in Portland a year ago. Bouvy offers a dead-on Jimmy Stewart, from the hesitant drawl and the slightly odd pauses to the shambling posture.
He's equally good as Donna Reed's prim but straightforward Mary Bailey or Beulah Bondi's manipulative Ma Bailey. He gives us quick, comic glimpses at stereotypical characters, noting that Argentina Brunetti's Mr. Martini and Lillian Randolph as the Baileys' outspoken cook Annie are singular representatives of their kind in white-bread Bedford Falls.
When he takes on roles that are extended caricatures — Lionel Barrymore's evil, grasping banker Mr. Potter or George's crackpot Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell in the film) — he cranks up the stylized interpretations even more. Every time Potter is described the adjectives get more despicable (I especially liked "the old booger-eating bastard"), and Billy bobs and weaves with greater exaggeration as the story proceeds.
There's not a lot of analysis regarding the story's appeal, although the actor doesn't hesitate to point out occasionally flimsy plot elements. Regarding the scene in which the pharmacist Mr. Gower almost inadvertently poisons a child, Bouvy plants his tongue firmly in his cheek and observes that you always see bottles of poison in pharmacies. He marvels at a high school gym in a tiny town where the floor retracts to reveal a swimming pool. And when the bank auditor shows up on Christmas Eve, he fixes the audience with a steady glance and a raised eyebrow and says, "Yeah, right. On Christmas Eve."
This production initially offers the impression that it will be simple and straightforward: James F. Wolk's set re-creates the front of a 1940s movie theater with a small marquee, a glass entry door, a case displaying the movie's poster (reminding us of Stewart and Reed, in case we've forgotten), and a ticket counter. But soon the counter becomes the soda fountain where the sparks first fly between George and Mary; later it sprouts bars that become the bridge where George contemplates his suicidal jump into the freezing river. A table becomes a desk; with a pop-up sign, it's a taxi. The display case turns into a broken window in the old house the Baileys inhabit, and quickly flipped signs convert it to entrances to the Bailey Bros. Savings & Loan or Ma Bailey's Boarding House. And a clever step-unit, complete with a banister and a decorative wooden ball that keeps coming off in George's hand, is all we need to convey the sense of place, with occasional complementary lighting by Mary Louise Geiger.
Ultimately This Wonderful Life is about top-notch storytelling. Sometimes the best stories are those we've heard before, brought back to life by an inventive narrator. Bouvy's quick-change artistry (although he never sheds his three-piece suit) in repeating this heart-warming tale makes this production a perfect show for the holidays. Grade: A
THIS WONDERFUL LIFE, performed in the Cincinnati Playhouse's Shelterhouse Theatre, continues through Dec. 23.