It probably surprised many people to see advertisements for the Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life presented as a stage play. Dear to the hearts of moviegoers all over the world, the film version, released in 1946 and Jimmy Stewart's first role after his highly decorated service in World War II, barely broke even but eventually entered the top 100 films of all-time selected by the American Film Institute. It wasn't until 1993 that James W. Rodgers adapted the film into a two act play and that is the version presented by the Cary Players at their brand new home at the Cary Arts Center.
The Triangle area is rich with a huge array of theater companies, but most of them – even the smallest – boast some degree of professionalism and the corresponding bios attest to that. The Cary Players proudly proclaim their status as truly a community theater and that unique quality far outweighs any slight imperfections as compared to "professionals." It's a Wonderful Life is only their second production in the beautifully renovated Old Cary Elementary School, and the full house and friendly folk gave the entire evening a wonderful community ambience. Before the play began a choir sang Christmas carols in the lobby and upon entry into the auditorium a recorder consort continued the pre-show entertainment.
Is there anyone out there not familiar with this story? Based on a short story The Greatest Gift, written in 1939 by Philip Van Doren Stern, it is the ultimate uplifting tale of every person's worth to those he encounters throughout a lifetime of what seems trivial at the moment. George Bailey is the main character and the play begins as he stands on a bridge contemplating suicide because "he is worth more dead than alive." His guardian Angel Second Class, Clarence Odbody, appears and reveals all the wonderful things that George has done during his life and how his town of Bedford Falls would have suffered if he had never lived. The film is a series of flashbacks of all of the events of his life that led to the brink of his jumping from the bridge into icy waters and the subsequent realization of his "wonderful life." Obviously, a movie is much better suited to flashbacks of this sort, but if you do your best to approach the play with a clean slate and not compare it to the film, Cary Players does a magnificent job of firing up your imagination and fleshing out both the characters and the storyline.
The well-constructed set is just enough to highlight the important spots of this magical tale: the snow-covered bridge, a simple front of a house that is wheeled on and off several times, a bank and a few desks. Jon Karnofsky, playing the lead part of George Bailey, seemed a bit timid at first, but his confidence grew with each scene and he eventually attained that theatrical cliché: he inhabited the part. His wife Mary (Megan Woronka) ably communicated her belief in and love of George, and their charming brood of four was giggly portrayed by some promising young thespians. The youngest Bailey child, Zuzu (8 year old Gabrielle Planells) nailed the most famous line of the play: "Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."
This was an enormous cast of twenty-six and director Jaret Preston used the ample stage well to coordinate the throngs of actors coming and going as well as several innovative stagings in front of the closed curtain. Without denigrating any of the other actors, the highlight of the play was Fred Yaffe's portrayal of Mr. Potter, the gruff banker you loved to hate and a very appropriate character during this Occupy Wall Street movement. Potter owned nearly everything in Bedford Falls and, like today's one-percenters, was not averse to throwing people out of their homes.
Above all, It's a Wonderful Life is an affirmation of community and every person's worth. It can be corny in spots and unashamedly tugs at your heart strings, but this is Christmas, and the message sent sure beats images of the mobs of Black Friday.
The show continues through 12/5. For details, see the sidebar.