Review: ‘This Wonderful Life’ explores American complexities

A holiday classic gets an update in a play at Boise Contemporary Theater.

December 2, 2013 

BCT

  • Go see it

    WHAT

    “This Wonderful Life”

    WHERE

    Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St.

    WHEN

    8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 21.

    TICKETS

    $30 Fridays-Saturdays, $25 Wednesdays-Thursdays, $15 matinees and for students at any performance at 331-9224, or BCTheater.org.

If you’re an artistic director at an edgy contemporary theater, you must choose your holiday show carefully — not too sappy that you belie the theater’s aesthetic, yet not so dark that it’s a holiday buzz kill.

Boise Contemporary Theater’s Matthew Cameron Clark hits the right tone with Steve Murray’s “This Wonderful Life,” and in the hands of director Drew Barr, designer Rick Martin and actor Tom Ford, it puts forth the darker subtext and questions that make it relevant.

Don’t worry. If you don’t know the film already, you will after seeing this play.

Ford’s unnamed character recounts his favorite movie — “It’s a Wonderful Life” — at a troubled time in his life, as he contemplates the same life and death question that the film’s main character, George Bailey, faces: Would the world be a better place without me? And the more pertinent argument — how do we value a human life?

Ford, a masterful actor and storyteller, embodies each of the film’s iconic characters, from a Jimmy Stewart-esque George and Henry Travers’ Clarence (Angel Second Class) to Lionel Barrymore’s evil Mr. Potter and Donna Reed’s Mary Hatch. Working with dialect coach Ann Price, he nails each of the voices in the exact intonations from the film, right down to Clarence’s cracking voice on: “She’s just about to close up the library!” (Giggles from the audience.)

It’s a truly engaging performance, as he invites the audience into his fascination with the Capra film.

From the moment you walk into the BCT building, you are enveloped in the film’s environment — large-scale black-and-white screen shots from Mr. Gower’s apothecary, Martini’s bar, the Bailey house and, of course, the bridge where George ponders the value of his life. It is a complete experience.

There is trivia to learn, there are quizzes to take, and you can even have your picture taken on the bridge.

Ford’s journey through the film plays out on Rick Martin’s subtly high-tech set: a thrust platform and a video wall filled with squares and rectangles on which elements from the film are projected to illustrate Ford’s performance.

Ford deftly brings the 1940s characters to life with a mix of pathos and humor, tinged with his own sorrowful questioning.

With this breakdown you realize there’s something deeply American about “It’s a Wonderful Life” that is inextricably tied to the Puritan work ethic that founded this country.

“Notice how much of this movie is about money?” Ford asks in an aside. And it is. Money and greed make Mr. Potter downright evil; George’s true wealth is found in family, community and good intentions. That seems a quaint notion today, in a time when human effort is devalued and money defines success, especially at the holidays.

And that’s part of the point. December is a magical time, when the impossible seems to happen.

Would the town have saved George if the bank examiner had come on any day other than Christmas Eve? Would the angels have come to the rescue in July? Is redemption still possible in our complicated times?

But don’t lose heart, because the human spirit bleeds through in every aspect of Ford’s performance. In the end, we’re all the better for having asked the questions.

Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland

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