'This Wonderful Life' a Not-So-Wonderful Play 

Screen icon doesn't translate well to the stage

This Wonderful Life, which opened Nov. 30 at Boise Contemporary Theater, whipped up Christmas spirit right as attendees walked through the door. That's where a ceiling-mounted machine blew acrid-smelling bubbles in imitation of snow. In the foyer, attendees snapped photos at a mockup of the steel bridge made famous by the film. The performance itself, however, was less interesting and complete than its source material.

The play is a dramatic retelling of that canonical Christmas tale, the 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, in which Tom Ford--the only actor in the production--gave a scene-by-scene recap of the life, despair and redemption of George Bailey (James Stewart in the film) from Bedford Falls, N.Y., with occasional help from prop-bearing stagehands and images and stills projected onto a screen behind him.

At 70 minutes in length, This Wonderful Life was a cascade of only occasionally witty dialogue and often slick pathos, with Ford opening the play as a raconteur who was able to deliver about 10 minutes of gushing over his favorite movie before losing much of the crowd's interest. The audience quickly became wise to the unoriginal, effusive commentary, and laughter at the narrator's jokes thinned; one person left the theater mid-performance.

Ford's talent--and he has plenty, as evidenced by a stellar run as the title character in this summer's Idaho Shakespeare Festival production of Sweeney Todd--hindered the audience's suspension of disbelief. His were the practiced movements, easy emotions and fluid speech of a professional thespian, and the lack of other characters--anything to which Ford might have reacted--made the hard work of memorizing lines and portraying multiple characters evident, rather than invisible.

Though the play received a standing ovation, the most vocal enthusiasm from the audience came early on when Ford made explicit the emotional and sexual tensions underpinning Bailey's courtship with Mary Hatch. It was telling that, for a play based on a sophisticated film about Christmas and the value of human life, its best laughs came from explaining away the magic of young love so lovingly presented in the film.

From a technical standpoint, however, This Wonderful Life was a marvel, with its movie screen backdrop and nifty pre-recorded voiceovers from Ford occasionally layered atop various speeches. From sound to stage, BCT put together a setting for a play that boasted style and simplicity.

The play's superb production values, however, couldn't make Ford's mimicry of Stewart's signature, all-American drawl any less grating or predictable, nor could it save the play from being a rehash that added little to the film on which it's based.

Writer Steve Murray wanted to tickle people's Christmas spirit by narrating an iconic Christmas movie, but in writing his play, he set--and in this case sprang--the trap of creating nothing new, relying on audience recognition to fuel interest in it.

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