By Ruth Ross
Like many folks around this time of year, you’ve probably gathered around the television to watch the classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or perhaps you’ve caught one of the performances now onstage in northern New Jersey. But whatever you choose, I doubt that you’ve ever experienced a production quite like that at Luna Stage in West Orange where it runs through December 18.
There, in a version by Steve Murray called This Wonderful Life, Erica Bradshaw retells the story of George Bailey’s redemption, portraying every character from George to his wife Mary to greedy banker Potter to Clarence, the Angel 2nd Class who has yet to earn his wings—and everyone else in between! Murray’s script follows the 1946 Frank Capra film’s trajectory closely, but comical asides—uttered by Bradshaw as she races around the stage for just about 80 minutes donning various oddments of clothing—add humor, a touch of snark and modern relevance to the already familiar tale.
Faced with the loss of business funds, George Bailey feels so desperate that he contemplates suicide. He had always wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world, but circumstances and his own good heart have led him to stay. He sacrificed his education for his brother's, kept the family-run savings and loan afloat, protected the town from the avarice of the greedy banker Mr. Potter and married his childhood sweetheart. As he prepares to jump from a bridge, his guardian angel intercedes; showing him what life would have been like for the residents of Bedford Falls if he had never lived.
Talking non-stop, Bradshaw (right) pulls off a tour de force performance. As George Bailey, she channels Jimmy Stewart’s distinctive voice, down to even his stutter, often to comedic effect. She growls as Mr. Potter, affects Mr. Martini’s Italian accent, sounds like a teenage girl and later a grown (white) woman and conveys Clarence the angel’s chirpy innocence. Donning a hat, a collar or a jacket (costumes designed by Deborah Caney) pulled out of drawers, a basket or a pile of what looks to be detritus, ), she transforms herself from a 40-something black woman into the various residents of Bedford Falls. Bradshaw rolls around a dress form and interacts with it as though it’s a person, and she steps in and out of a doorway multiple times without tripping! In addition to uttering dialogue, she narrates the action and brings the story to life.
Director Daryl L. Stewart’s steady hand keeps the action (and the actor) in constant motion on a “backstage” set designed by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader. Justin A. Partier’s lighting is crucial as the action ping-pongs around the stage, and Donald Stark’s sound design is appropriate and effective.
This is the first time I’ve seen this holiday chestnut performed by a solo actor, and I must say that it retains its charm despite the loss of acting support. With its focus on the story, we are reminded that, as Clarence puts it so well, “Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” and that “no man is a failure who has friends.” Now, every time I hear a bell, I’ll know that some angel’s just got his wings. Thank you, Luna Stage, for a wonderful holiday present. It’s just what we need this year.
Photos by Christopher Drukker.