This Wonderful Life | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

theat_wonderful-life_sm.jpgMark Setlock is a marvel, and his interpretations of each character show his affection for the source material.

 

 

 

 

Nov. 26 – Dec. 28, 2008

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The classic film It’s a Wonderful Life is brought to the stage of the Loretto-Hilton in a unique presentation, re-titled as This Wonderful Life, that finds one actor taking on all the roles. Mark Setlock’s self-professed love of the movie—witnessed by his ability to recall and recite entire scenes of dialog—led him to collaborate with writer Steve Murray on an adaptation that condenses 130 minutes of screen time into 90 minutes of pure fun. It’s a tremendous undertaking with the plethora of diverse characters that parade through this venerable work based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s story "The Greatest Gift," but Setlock is more than up to challenge. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s production is a wonderful, heartwarming and hilarious production sparked by Setlock’s bravura performance.

Film director Frank Capra and a team of screenwriters shaped the piece into something that’s inadvertently become a holiday staple. Frequent television airings, and the appearance of cheap copies that came out on videotape and DVD during the ’80s and ’90s when it became a public domain title after the copyright was allowed to lapse, have ensured that a larger amount of people have been exposed to its charms in recent years than those who saw it when it was first released. I remember being able to view it at different points in the story by simply changing from one channel to another during one particular Christmas weekend.

This Wonderful Life is essentially the story of a selfless man named George Bailey, who never realizes his dreams to travel the world because he’s too busy coming to the rescue of everyone else. Ultimately, he finds true happiness in the generosity of his large circle of family and friends. If you’ve never seen the movie before it really doesn’t matter; the story is easy to follow, with the script including plenty of asides and commentary to better explain the motivations and situations the characters are dealing with. In the end, this approach allows for a deeper and finer understanding of just how noble these folks are.

But I’ve strayed from the plot, which finds George on the brink of suicide when the Bedford Falls Savings and Loan comes up short in the coffers due to Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness. He’s saved by an angel named Clarence, who lets him see his impact on those around him by making his wish to have never been born come true. By now that device has been a cliché, but you have to remember its novelty at the time.

Setlock is a marvel, and his interpretations of each character show his affection for the source material. His George Bailey has the halting cadence and "aw, shucks" demeanor of Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal without being a direct imitation. His take on the evil Mr. Potter conjures up the twisted image presented by Lionel Barrymore. Thomas Mitchell, who excelled at playing drunks, is also given his due with Setlock’s expert rendering of Uncle Billy.

The female roles find Setlock mining the material for comic gold. Gloria Grahame’s vampy Violet Bick becomes a riot of overstated allure, positively dripping with sexuality. George’s wife Mary, played with doe-eyed innocence in the film by Donna Reed, is a model of strength and shyness, yet Setlock somehow manages to imbue her with a sharp sense of humor, as well.

But it’s with Bedford Falls‘ lone ethnic stereotypes that Setlock really hits his stride. His simple and sassy version of Annie, the Baileys’ black maid, is succinct and priceless. The wildly funny gesticulations of Italian bar owner Giuseppe Martini are an example of the politically incorrect interpretations common to 1940s Hollywood fare. Setlock explores this issue, makes a pointed comment on it, and then milks the situation for maximum laugh potential.

Martha Banta’s sure-handed direction keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, but allows for the occasional moment of drama so necessary to the story. James Wolk’s terrific set resembles a bijou from the period, but the panels and signage easily transform into whatever backdrop is required. A bridge railing (complete with snow gently falling from above) and a tombstone pop up out of the floor, and a desk becomes a taxi with the simple addition of a pull-out sign. All illustrate Wolk’s clever utilization of changeable pieces. Matt Frey’s lighting adds the proper mood to each scene, and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design adds texture, with effects that approximates the various locations presented. | Chris Gibson

This Wonderful Life is perfect holiday fare, combining an uplifting story with a gentle dose of good humor to create a delightfully winning package. The Rep’s production continues through December 28, 2008. Call 314-968-4925 for ticket information.

PHOTO: This Wonderful Life: Mark Setlock. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

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