By Paul Love
Ask people how they might finish the sentence “It’s not Christmas without ____ “, and one response you will probably hear a lot is “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the beloved 1946 Frank Capra film that has become a traditional piece of holiday season entertainment. Despite its initial tepid box office reception, the film, which starred James Stewart and Donna Reed, has become truly loved over the 70+ years since, leading not only to the traditional annual viewings, but also the development of musical theatre and radio play adaptations. In 2007, playwright Doug Rand decided to create a theatrical adaptation that was faithful to the film, and that is the version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE being performed by the Scarborough Players this holiday season.
Rand’s play is faithful to Capra’s film, almost to a fault, but the real gift of this production is in seeing other talented actors breathe new life into a story that many of us know well. First of all, kudos must be given to lighting designer, David Buffham, and set designer, Anthony Jones, for drawing us into their lovely, uncomplicated vision of Bedford Falls. Buffham alternately gives us a sense of the cold, wintery outdoors, and bright, warm interiors, and even uses his lighting magic to answer the question “How are they going to deal with the gym floor?” Jones, understanding that there are too many locations to have a fixed set, instead gives us props and small set pieces that come swirling on and offstage—much in the way they might when a person’s mind switches from one memory to the next—to give us just enough of a sense of setting for each vignette of George’s life. Much of the play is, in effect, a memory play, and the technical achievements of Buffham and Jones, along with Lorraine Kimsa’s solid, natural direction pull this off to great effect.
Greg Nowlan is our George Bailey in this production, and despite the gravity of playing a character so ingrained in our collective pop culture unconscious, Nowlan carries the production along with wonderful energy, and an affability necessary to convince the town--and the audience—that George is someone to root for. Matching him step-for-step is Elaine O’Neal, who infuses her performance of Mary Bailey with a wonderful, soulful warmth, coupled with a confident, one-step-ahead-of-you smile. It’s a really nice bonus that Nowlan and O’Neal have great chemistry together.
Chip Thompson plays the villainous Mr. Potter, and refreshingly chooses to carve his own path with the character, giving us a performance that is in many ways different from that of Lionel Barrymore’s, but is still very good. The all-important Angel Second Class, Clarence, is performed—with great theatrical instinct—by Ian Fox. Fox deftly walks a tightrope between wise old man, and innocent, naïve angel, giving the scenes with Clarence and George much depth and power.
Special mention must be given to the children in this production, who were eager and enthusiastic and maintained believable characters, really adding to the show’s beating heart. Abby Hamilton-Diabo was impossibly adorable as Zuzu, particularly in the scene where she’s sick in bed. Kudos to Isabelle Pelowich in her wonderful portrayal of Young Mary, whom she presents as an exuberant girl with a self-awareness that extends well beyond her years. Pelowich’s performance ends splendidly with her giddy declaration of undying love for George.
Whether you’ve never seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or you’ve seen it 20 times, for the sake of this well-acted, well-staged production, you owe it to yourself to start the Christmas season off right with Scarborough Players at the Scarborough Village Theatre. You probably shouldn’t delay—rumour has it that this production is selling out quickly.