Long before the age of toxic mortgages, savings and loan institutions actually helped people fulfill their dreams. Perhaps the most famous fictional savings and loan is George Bailey’s, in the Frank Capra movie, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (Capra based his screenplay on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern which Stern included in Christmas cards to friends.)
Stoneham Theatre is celebrating the film with a stage version (playing through Dec. 23rd), deftly directed by Caitlin Lowans, which makes for compelling drama and at the same time, triggers a peculiar alchemy in the brain: Stoneham’s production cues you to play the same film scene simultaneously in your mind’s eye. I thought perhaps it was only happening to me until the woman in the adjacent seat shared “It’s just like you’re seeing the movie.” (I should add that far from being distracting, it somehow enhances the experience.)
Contributing mightily to the phenomenon is Mark Linehan’s performance as the affable banker overwhelmed with crises. Linehan mimics Jimmy Stewart’s droll mannerisms and halting speech patterns so completely that you can’t resist giving yourself over to the story. Erin Brehm, too, contributes to the spirit of the piece with a lovely performance as Bailey’s resourceful wife.
Lowans and company capture the gentle humor of small town life with charming supporting characters like David Lutheran’s salt of the earth policeman, Harold S. Withee’s jolly cabdriver, Gabriel Graetz and Cameron M. Cronin’s grateful bank customers and Janelle Mills’ loyal bank clerk. Our hearts go out to Mark S. Cartier’s grief stricken pharmacist and they’re completely won over by William Gardiner’s sweet, bumbling angel second class.
Michael Underhill makes George’s brother stand out (not an easy task when he’s primarily there to prove George’s life has meaning). Gerard Slattery gives poor old Uncle Billy a loving side and Bobbie Steinbach shines in two roles: She’s George’s strong willed mother and, wigged so you can’t tell it’s her, she plays the Lionel Barrymore role of the richest, meanest man in town. Barrymore practically twirled his mustache as the villain but Steinbach makes her conniving insidious and, alas, human. The interpretation is especially resonant now that we know how present day bankers seduced borrowers into debt.
The entire ensemble deserves credit for thoroughly immersing us in angel dust, especially the children: Max Roberts as young George, Nathan Elmer as his brother and Heather Buccini as young Mary. Stoneham’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is indeed a wonderful way to catch up with the holidays.