Not even the considerable sentimental force of It’s a Wonderful Life can rescue MCT’s production from what has now grown into an unfortunate Christmas tradition: bad theater. The story, scraped into our collective unconscious by incessant television showings, needs only a little retelling here. George Bailey is an everyman of good will and kindness who has spent his young life sacrificing his dreams so that others may have theirs. Now, on Christmas Eve, he has reached a despairing point and considers suicide. Enter Clarence the angel, second class, sent by God to shake George out of it. Clarence shows George what life and Bedford Falls would be like had he never existed and persuades him that life is worth living. George runs home shouting Merry Christmas to the whole town and leaps into the bosom of his family, now fully aware of being rich in love and friends.
What saves Frank Capra’s movie from suffocating us with sentimentality is its dark side, and George’s dark side. This also saves Philip Van Doren Stern’s story from being revealed as a flimsy retread of Thornton Wilder, an anemic cousin to the heartrending and powerful Our Town. But at MCT, director Jim Caron pulls away from the dark side. Mean and warped Mr. Potter should have force but doesn’t; Mary should be transformed by having never met George but, except for a head scarf, isn’t. Bedford Falls, now renamed Pottersville, needs a sense of failure and menace to convince George of the full implications of his wretched choice, but we never see it. Only a few short seasons since Greg Johnson directed the same play at the University, this production of It’s a Wonderful Life, which opened last week and runs through the end of this weekend, should justify itself with vigorous magic but does not. The production lacks wonder, never igniting but instead sputtering with good intentions and damp matches. And, most importantly, the simmering tensions below George’s surface should reveal a bubble or two, but Malcolm Lowe concentrates on the kind heart.
To his credit, Lowe imbues the production with this wide-eyed goodness in an age of cynicism. Lowe believes in George and makes him credible, a real man. (Can he make us forget James Stewart, even for a moment? He can.) Peter Hance as Clarence also gives strength to an otherwise thin character, and the scenes between these two actors at the opening of the second act bring the production momentarily to life. Otherwise, the cast is uniformly flat, some of the actors no more relaxed in their roles than they might be at an audition. Actors seem uncomfortable in their costumes and unfamiliar with their lines, which certainly doesn’t give them a chance to make people out of their characters. Moments that need to be dramatic, such as when all the teenagers at the dance fall and jump into the swimming pool or when Potter finds himself holding the forgetful Uncle Billy’s cash deposit of $8,000, are swallowed up in rushed executions, their power lost on stage and accessible only through the memory of the movie.
Linda Muth, again, again, again, has created a town-full of terrific costumes, and their cut, feel and fabric give the production any authenticity it can lay claim to. George’s overcoat, as one example, with its 1930’s grown-up elegance, gives George the necessary air of a man desperate to leave for the bigger world. The coat itself, left folded and forlorn over the arm of a bench, speaks volumes about the nature of abandoned hopes. The wonderful women’s coats and dresses are missing only period shoes to complete the effect.
Now that this is the third year MCT has followed a big musical with a flop of a Christmas heart-warmer, I wonder if the considerable demands of the season’s opening shows might be draining the company of energy and resources for its immediate follow-ups. Or perhaps a straight play feels tamer and more manageable to handle after a big number-heavy show, thereby lulling director, cast and crew into complacency. But in each case—Harvey, A Christmas Story and now this—the play is not getting the care it deserves, is not being transformed from page to stage, is missing an essential understanding that would make it better than just a run-through. Whatever, the explanation, MCT needs to try something else next year, a different mood that might, perhaps, dispel the Christmas curse.
The remaining run of It’s a Wonderful Life is Dec. 9 through 12 at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. Evening performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 6:30 PM. Matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM. Tickets cost $14–$18. Call 728-PLAY for more information.