Three stars, one small theater: Williamston scores again

By Michael H. Margolin

"This Wonderful Life", a revival of Williamston Theatre's 2009 production, is propelled into captivating theater by three men: actor John Lepard, director Tony Caselli and playwright Steve Murray. Although some credit, I suppose, must go to Frank Capra who directed the film upon which it is based, "It's a Wonderful Life", and the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett who wrote the screenplay.

For the very few of you who have been out of the popular culture loop, the film has become a Christmas staple, beloved by many and replayed endlessly in homes across the country about this time of year. It is maudlin, sappy, enchanting and so sweet that your teeth may ache just from seeing it. But it is beloved. (And for the record, scored five Academy Award nominations in 1946, no wins, but shows up on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films.) It concerns a man named George Bailey whom life has shortchanged and considers suicide until he is shown how much good he has done in his little town of Bedford Falls, despite the criticisms of the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter who owns the town's bank.

Steve Murray made the play into an hour and fifteen minute stage work for one actor. One actor who performs some 30 roles, ranging from an elderly curmudgeon to a young, virginal woman and a couple of children and mothers, a dotty uncle and a black maid. The author, who knows the work well, does not settle for sentiment; instead he imbues the work with tongue-in-cheek humor and some marvelous hyperbole, while still preserving the integrity of the story.

In this production, Tony Caselli directs John Lepard on a set that consists of one rolling table, one stool, a stairway and some projections on the rear scrim. Not much to work with, so Caselli wisely gives his actor as much lead as possible, using every inch of the stage. You can tell this is a blessed partnership: The actor trusts his director and vice versa.

Then, of course, there is John Lepard. Yes, he "plays" some 30 characters and gives a more than passable impression of several of the originals such as James Stewart as George Bailey whose life is put up for rescue on Christmas Eve, and the venerable Lionel Barrymore as the venomous villain, Mr. Potter.

But from the start, the tall, good looking Lepard, who has always been a graceful, articulate actor, does something absolutely essential if the work is going to succeed: He puts the audience in his pocket, gains our trust and allows us to work with him in creating a theatrical partnership. Charm is in evidence, but it is more than that: It is the essence of live theater that no reality show can duplicate.

More plaudits to scenic designer Bartley H. Bauer, Reid G. Johnson's good lighting design and Quintessa Gallinat's sound design - a ringing telephone can change the course of history.

If there is one small quibble, it is that in the film, and subsequently in this retelling, the villain goes unpunished. Before the age of irony in the arts, it was a cardinal rule that villainy had to be punished before the final curtain. Somehow I wish that playwright Murray had found a way to punish the miserable Mr. Potter.

REVIEW:

'This Wonderful Life'

Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 23, plus Dec. 20-21. $20-$25. 517-655-7469. http://www.williamstontheatre.org

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