Reviewed by Judy Richter
"It's a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra's 1947 film starring James Stewart, has become such a holiday favorite that some TV stations show it for 24 hours nonstop just before Christmas. Watching it has become a tradition for many families. Small wonder, for it tells a tale of how one good man can change the lives of many people for the better and how they in turn can help him.
A few years ago, playwright Steve Murray, inspired by actor Mark Setlock's idea, worked with Setlock and director Martha Banta to transform the film into a one-man play, "This Wonderful Life," that premiered at Oregon's Portland Center Stage. Now San Jose Repertory Theatre is presenting it as a holiday treat. Directed by associate artistic director Kirsten Brandt, versatile actor Dan Hiatt serves as the genial narrator and portrays the film's 35 characters, enacting the entire story in about 75 minutes without intermission. Wearing a '40s-style three-piece suit and hat (costume by Brandin Barón), Hiatt uses mostly body language and vocal inflections to become various characters such as the hero, George Bailey; his beloved wife, Mary; their four children; his nemesis, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter; dotty angel Clarence; sweet but ineffective Uncle Billy; police officer Bert; cab driver Ernie; tavern owner Mr. Martini; and other residents of Bedford Falls.
Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts, aided by David Lee Cuthbert's lighting and projectons and by Jeff Mockus' sound, has created a variety of settings such as the rickety staircase in George's house. Perhaps the most impressive set piece is the snow-covered iron bridge where the despondent George contemplates suicide because he thinks he's worth more dead than alive. It certainly evokes a memorable image from the film.
Even more impressive, though, is Hiatt's performance, which is faithful to the original characters and story, playing them straight without glossing over some of the film's cornier moments or trying to make it more sentimental than it already is. His accomplishment is a salute to his own skills as well as the artistry of the playwright.