This fall many Boston theatregoers unexpectedly found themselves at the movies: the Huntington hosted the pre-Broadway run of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, while the ART produced a stage version of cult fave Donnie Darko. Both companies stumbled in the process; Steps merely ridiculed its source, while the ART, by all accounts (no, I didn't bother) mounted an oddly literal physicalization of Darko. But the third time seems to have been the charm: the Lyric successfully makes the jump from screen to stage with a smart, modestly scaled version of It's a Wonderful Life (with local hero Neil A. Casey, above, playing every part) that manages, for the most part, to evoke its source without getting either too meta or too maudlin.
Casey pulls off the trick by serving as his own narrator - in between dipping into one role after another - and in the process largely rehabilitates the Frank Capra classic from its corny reputation. True, the film hinges on a device so sappy it could rot your teeth - a dotty angel-in-waiting saves a human soul to earn his wings - but what's shocking about It's a Wonderful Life is how tough-minded and dark it gets before it starts groping for your heartstrings. Next to, say, Steven Spielberg, Capra is defiantly clear-eyed about life, wonderful or not, and he sends his hero, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, above right) through a graduate course in the School of Hard Knocks before finally finding redemption via that angelus ex machina. Over the course of the movie, children are abused, loved ones die, dreams are crushed, and the hero is repeatedly disappointed or frustrated; still, scene after scene is either buoyant, sexy, or lyrical; life is obviously worth living despite everything. Indeed, it's hard to count how many memorable moments (and hairpin turns in tone) Capra packs into his sprawling canvas: there's the giddy dance over (and into) the swimming pool; the dreamy, moonlit walk home to the tune of "Buffalo Gals" (at left), the tense run on the Bailey Savings and Loan; the "honeymoon" in the abandoned house; and of course, the Dickensian supernatural interlude with its rising hysteria and film noir shadows.
It helps the Lyric, of course, that the set design of Life has become so iconic; designer Jenna McFarland Lord has only to simulate the famous truss from which George nearly leaps, along with the welcome sign from Bedford Falls (both built in glorious black-and-white) to conjure the film's mise en scène. And once the show begins, the dialogue reminds us how closely, and how beneficially, classic films once emulated the theatre. Casablanca is obviously a barely-opened-out melodrama; The Wizard of Oz is deeply indebted to vaudeville; even Citizen Kane's deep-focus essentially squeezes "upstage" and "downstage" onto celluloid (Welles was first and foremost a great stage ham). And like most of these, It's a Wonderful Life is built of long, dialogue-heavy "acts," usually performed within a single set, that don't seem out of place on a stage proper.
Neil Casey does face one daunting challenge in bringing Life back to life: its cast is relentlessly superb. Capra had worked with almost all the movie's actors before, and the one newcomer, Donna Reed, delivered a performance at least as mature as those proferred by the old hands around her. Casey, alas, doesn't even try to do justice to Reed; he does his patented funny, superficial feminine schtick when channeling Capra's actresses (and thus one of the film's great moments, the passionate joint phone call between Stewart and Reed, is here played merely for laughs). He's much subtler, oddly, when chewing the scenery (or at least his wheelchair) as Lionel Barrymore, and even better as Jimmy Stewart; he nails Stewart's stuttering delivery from the start, then settles into an increasingly complex and gripping characterization; by the finale, we realize he's earned that perilous spot on the bridge over Bedford Falls.
It's too bad, however, that adapter Steve Murray has left much of the political edge of the movie on the cutting-room floor, so some of Casey's performance seems to be happening in a vacuum. This even though the economic message of Life - that capitalism must be balanced with humanity - is today more relevant than ever (bank runs are once again in style, and of course our looming subprime crisis dwarfs the mortgage meltdown in the movie). The edits, of course, are probably due to the fact that today the "free market" occupies something of the same cultural space "virginity" once filled for the Victorians. Still, you'd think if people can handle Capra's unapologetic populism on TV, they can handle it onstage - a thought which does raise the question, Why see the stage version of It's a Wonderful Life at all, when sometime before Christmas it will inevitably pop up on cable? Perhaps the answer lies in what's lost in the isolation of home viewing: the sense of community that even moviehouses (where Life was designed to be seen) once offered. And without that, Capra tells us, life is a whole lot less wonderful.