“A Wonderful Life” and Pavlov
By Geary Danihy
Do we well up when Clarence, guardian angel second-class, gets his wings because we’re happy for him and for George Bailey and for...well, just being alive, or is it because we’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” so many times that, like good old Pavlov’s dog (who was conditioned by the Russian physiologist to salivate when a bell rang), we just can’t help ourselves. The bell hanging on the Christmas tree rings, Zuzu tells us an angel has just gotten his wings, and suddenly there’s a catch in our collective throats and tears start to flow.
As an experiment, I invited someone who has never seen Frank Capra’s film (yes, there is someone living right here in Connecticut who has never seen the movie) to the opening of Joe Landry’s adaptation at Long Wharf Theatre. I said nothing about the film or the adaptation, just sat next to her for the 80 or so minutes the show runs and when the lights went up turned to see her response. Her eyes glistened as she said, “I loved it.” So much for Pavlov.
There really is quite a lot to like and...well, love...about the show, although there’s a bit of a false step at the start, which I must ascribe to director Eric Ting. The premise is that we are an audience viewing a radio broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with five actors playing all of the roles and a foley artist (Nathan A. Roberts) providing the myriad sound effects.
For some unknown reason, Ting opts to begin the evening with the studio (designed by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams) in mothballs -- equipment shrouded in sheets, dust on the scripts. The rear door opens and a young man (Alex Moggridge) enters with a flashlight. He wanders around the studio as if he is investigating a crypt. Suddenly the other actors appear, the studio comes to life, and the announcer (Dan Domingues) proclaims the name of the evening’s production, which will star, much to his surprise, the young man as George Bailey.
Okay. An interesting premise, I guess, but it goes absolutely nowhere because Ting chooses not to develop the idea that our young man is a fish out of water (nor does Landry’s script support this idea). Though there are occasional moments when the character (not the actor) seems a bit confused as to what is happening, as a sub-plot it’s a non-starter.
I guess our take on this premise is supposed to be that this young man gets so caught up in the proceedings (as is expected of the audience) that he suspends his disbelief and actually becomes George Bailey. Maybe...maybe not. It’s all an unnecessary directorial spin on a pretty straightforward premise. Fortunately, it’s also not central to enjoyment of the production, which has a script that is a feast for character actors.
Along with Moggridge and Domingues, Kate MacCluggage, Kevyn Morrow and Ariel Woodiwiss bring the townspeople of Bedford Falls to vivid life. Besides George, there’s the cold-hearted Mr. Potter (played by Domingues, who does a great Lionel Barrymore impersonation), Mary Hatch (Woodwiss's main assignment), the love of George’s life, Uncle Billy and Clarence the angel (both played by Morrow), and Violet, the tease and potential tart (MacCluggagge’s character).
When they aren’t playing their main roles, the actors convincingly (and in rapid fire) shift responsibilities to the lesser characters: Ma Bailey, Ernie, Bert, Mr. Gower, Sam Wainright, George’s brother, Harry, Giuseppe Martini, the three Bailey children (MacCluggage gets to be Zuzu) and Nick the surly bartender (Domingues also does a great Sheldon Leonard). They also gather together on occasion to provide crowd noises.
The power and magic of the theater is in evidence here in this production, for the audience is being asked to watch actors in a radio studio putting on a play…and buy into what is going on in the play and care about the characters. That this, in fact, is what happens, as was evident from the heartfelt standing ovation given to the cast at the end of the evening, is a credit to the audience, to Landry, the actors and to Ting, who once he sheds himself of the opening trope, gets down to business with a vengeance, giving us non-stop dialogue, movement and sound effects that allow the evening to span 30 or so years in the lives of the characters without giving the audience time to take a breath.
Pitch this play to a producer in 1911 and you would have been laughed out of the office: “They’ll never believe it. The audience will be confused. Where is this supposed to be happening, a radio station or a town? You mean the actors play different characters but there ain’t no costume changes? Get outta here, kid!”
Yes, the audience believes it. No, the audience is not confused. Yes, it all happens in a radio station and in Bedford Falls and…in the audience members’ minds. So, as the bell rings and George says, “Way to go, Clarence,” we can also say, “Way to go, Long Wharf,” you’ve created a wonderful holiday gift for Connecticut theater-goers.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs through Saturday, Dec. 31. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.