Oh Wonderful Life

By Philip Pearce

Oh WonderfulIt’s a Wonderful Life was a critical failure and a public letdown when it was released in 1946 to complaints that it didn’t measure up to Frank Capra’s earlier successes like It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Since then, it’s become the favorite of all the Capra oeuvre and its hero George Bailey as much a fixture of American Christmastime holidays as “White Christmas” or Ebenezer Scrooge.

The current one-man stage adaptation, Oh Wonderful Life, at PacRep’s Circle Theatre is a wonderful holiday treat. Set on Christmas Eve, it’s still all about George Bailey and the Angel Clarence and the other familiar characters, but as interpreted by a dauntless radio DJ and news anchor named John Rand. He’s the last of the staff still on hand as Public Radio Station WKND winds down to a gloomy close from a lack of funding. Even the usual year-end radio adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life is about to be cancelled: the actors are all bogged down or housebound in a major snowstorm. Egged on by his mom, Rand decides to honor the memory of his late father’s commitment to the beleaguered station by collecting sound props, grabbing a script and broadcasting the whole show single-handed.

As the intrepid Rand, John Farmanesh-Bocca, a major local acting talent now working internationally, is clearly a man who loves a challenge and he meets this one with distinction. He has created a faithful radio version of the story and peoples it with memorable men, women and children.

It helps if you know the movie, but even if you don’t, this amazing and resourceful performance manages a seemingly effortless and always interesting distinction between characters that range from George and Clarence the Angel down to George’s wife Mary and the dastardly grasping old banker Mister Potter. Farmanesh-Bocca keeps the distinctions clear not only by carefully tuned contrasts in voice quality and pitch and pace, but in the tilt of head and body, and the shift of facial expression we come to recognize as characters meet and interrelate. He has wisely avoided exact imitations of the Hollywood cast. It‘s the kind of trick that has an initial impact but would pall and annoy over ninety minutes of playing time. Instead, he adopts a distinctive tone and tune for each personality that reflects a sensitive study of the film. Consciously or unconsciously we experience James Stewart’s rising nasal stammer at times of stress, the measured gutturals of Lionel Barrymore’s villainous Old Man Potter. Clarence the Angel is more shrill and juvenile than the Henry Travers original, but the character is appealing and consistent, so what does it matter?

The surrounding radio studio story is both apt and movingly relevant. Just as John Rand takes on the broadcast in tribute to his late father, John Farmanesh-Bocca attests that this year’s Circle Theatre evening honors the scene design and the creative encouragement given to him, and the 2007 PRT production, by his friend and mentor, the late John Rousseau.

Oh Wonderful Life plays in repertory with The Full Monty through December 23rd.

Photo by Stephen Moorer