American Players Theatre’s holiday performance of "This Wonderful Life," created wholly by Core Company Member Nate Burger and longtime APT director William Brown, is a pure (online) delight. It proves once again that a superlative actor can create whole worlds – completely capturing our imaginations with a gesture, a laugh or a wink – on a bare stage. And even in the worst of these COVID times, they can conjure stories that practically glow with holiday cheer through our computer screens.
When I first heard about the one-man show "This Wonderful Life," I cynically assumed that this adaptation of Frank Capra’s classic holiday movie was created by, and for, an actor who did a killer Jimmy Stewart impression. But it turns out, there is no room for cynicism in any part of this dazzling version of the beloved 1946 film that follows the life of George Bailey and his remarkable impact on the people of his hometown, Bedford Falls.
The real translator of “It’s A Wonderful Life” into a theater piece is Steve Murray, an award-winning film, theater and book critic and journalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. According to his bio, Murray’s plays “touch on the elusive nature of truth, the potential of everyday people for great kindness and unthinking cruelty, and the crazy things people sometimes do for love.” His pieces also contain a lot of humor, he says, “because that’s what keeps us human.” Murray’s predilections not only tick all the boxes for the black-and-white film that is an annual holiday ritual for many viewers, they perfectly ground and frame the condensed version, which sticks to the most important, iconic scenes and skips over some of the less essential bits that knit the original movie together.
The result is an 80-minute sleigh ride, dashing through the snow of small town America just after World War II, accompanied by one eccentric angel, second class. But instead of the measured dulcet tones of the movie’s narrator, we are led through the streets of Bedford Falls by the most enthusiastic fan of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that there has ever been. He doesn’t just know the film; he feels it. He revels in it. He actually relives it as he plays all the characters in each scene. And he’s also thought about it – frequently stepping out of character to comment on the filmmaking, the setting, the characters and the storyline of the original.
Differentiating between multiple characters in split-seconds is a challenge for any actor. So when Nate Burger fully embodies each one of the 55 people that make up the Wonderful Life cast, seamlessly transitioning from George Bailey, his wife Mary, befuddled Uncle Billy, and the customers at the Bailey Building and Loan, to big shot Sam Wainwright (hee-haw!) and Italian immigrant Mr. Martini in a flash, it’s a triumph. Sometimes just spinning around in his desk chair can usher in that old skinflint Mr. Potter. Burger chooses subtle gestures and facial expressions that signify character shifts – but he’s also a great mimic. His Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore voices are on point. He’s even got a good Clarence impersonation, carefully reproducing the cadence and tone of the original movie.
Sometimes a well-placed sound effect, like water splashing, locates the sledding scene at a pond, or the Charleston contest ending in the pool during the high school dance. Mini flashlights stand in surprisingly well for the special effects of the star/angels. And Burger manipulates his laptop to great effect, placing himself in, out, above and below the camera, even somersaulting out of the shot at one point.
So why watch someone act out parts of one of the greatest movies of all time, instead of just sitting down in front of Netflix? Because as the narrator, Burger’s unbridled enthusiasm for the piece is infectious. He makes the funny parts funnier. He also make the poignant moments somehow more heartfelt. His conversation between George and his father, proposing that the son take over the family business after college is even more wrenching than the original, perhaps because all the other elements of the scene are stripped away.
But for all of Burger’s charismatic, in your face, over-the-top storytelling, he (and the script) reveal very little about the person who is channeling the movie for us. The only clues are in the asides, which he fills with incredible specificity and depth. Looking in Burger’s sparkling eyes, you really do have to wonder how both the narrator and the protagonist got to that moment on the bridge.
It’s been well documented that during COVID times, nothing can replace a live theater experience. But APT’s production of "This Wonderful Life" will buoy your spirit and bring light into your home as the nights grow longer. As the angel Clarence says, “We’ve been given a wonderful gift.”
Available here through December 29 for $26.