Helen R. Murray and Jason Lott’s stage adaptation of the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” is called, simply, “Wonderful Life” — shorter than the original title, but broader in scope. The same could be said of the adaptation. With just one actor playing 15 characters for 75 minutes on an almost-bare stage, it cuts through the fog of nostalgia that hovers over the 1946 Frank Capra film to retell the story with striking immediacy.
The script has won accolades across the country since premiering in 2012 at The Hub Theatre in Arlington, where Murray was the founding artistic director. Now she’s leading St. Pete’s American Stage, which this month has been touring a production of “Wonderful Life” to multiple local venues (including The Studio@620, where I saw it last Friday). The final three performances will take place Dec. 22-24 at Gulfport’s Catherine A. Hickman Theater.
You know the story. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart in the movie) is the quintessential nice guy who has always set aside his own dreams to help others realize theirs. But, after an apparent mistake at his Savings & Loan threatens him and his beloved Bedford Falls with ruin, he’s poised to jump off a bridge on Christmas Eve when a droll angel named Clarence drops down from heaven to show him all the good things that wouldn’t have happened if he had never lived.
Matthew McGee, dressed in jacket and vest, plays not just George and Clarence, but George’s wife, Mary, plus his war hero brother, his doting mother, his dotty uncle and numerous townspeople, including villainous banker Henry Potter. That these characters remain distinct from one another is a credit to the playwrights, to Murray’s direction, and to the quiet virtuosity of McGee. After a while, you hardly notice that he’s reading from a script — kind of in the same way you stop noticing the humans powering the puppet in The Lion King.
McGee conveys changes in location by moving to different parts of the stage, which is decorated only with a Bedford Falls sign, a lectern and a bench. Character shifts are marked by the slightest of adjustments in vocal tone and gesture: Ma Bailey clutches her lapels, as if feeling a perpetual chill; Nick the bartender is pure Noo Yawk; and, because McGee is so adept at realizing the acute pain of Potter, a polio victim, we (almost) sympathize with the cad.
The pared-down approach of the Murray/Lott adaptation heightens the story’s contemporary resonance. Potter’s hard-nosed opposition to handouts vs. George’s insistence on financial equity come through loud and clear. The pain that can lead to suicide is vividly felt, as is the suggestion of its aftermath. And while George’s inherent goodness is key, it’s his belief in others that ultimately makes him a hero — underscoring the point that leaders are men who connect people rather than divide them.
And let’s face it — could anyone be a better embodiment of George Bailey-ness than Matthew McGee? Follow his lead, and discover a holiday show that’s funny, moving, and unexpectedly relevant.
Wonderful Life, American Stage at the Catherine A. Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S., Gulfport. Thurs., Dec. 22, 7 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 23, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 24, 2 & 8 p.m. americanstage.org.