On Theater: One man takes on a 'Wonderful Life'

It's one thing condensing "Shirley Valentine" into a one-person dramatic exercise, but "It's a Wonderful Life"?

That's what the Laguna Playhouse has in store for its audiences during the holiday season — Frank Capra's celebrated movie classic, adapted for the stage as a one-man show, titled "This Wonderful Life," opening on Friday and playing through Christmas Eve.

In this unique version, one actor will play not only the central role of George Bailey, but also his wife, Mary, Clarence the angel, the avaricious banker Potter and more than 30 other citizens of Bedford Falls.

That actor is James Leaming, who first took on the challenge in 2008 in Sarasota, Fla., followed by performances at the Syracuse Stage in 2009 and the Cleveland Playhouse last season. It's a joint project with Leaming and director Peter Amster, who explains the production's unique concept.

"I had admired Jim's performance as George Bailey in the American Blues Theater's production of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' so I gave him the script, told him to look at a few scenes and read for me," Amster recalls.

"Well, his George was, as expected, dead-on, but the surprise and delight for me was finding a real chameleon of an actor who could embody and give voice to Mr. Potter, Mary, Mrs. Bailey and all the other inhabitants of Bedford Falls with great vividness, presence and affection."

What followed was, in Amster's words, "one of the most satisfying professional relationships of my 40-odd year career in the theater. Jim is a gifted actor, a generous, open-hearted man and, now, a good friend."

Leaming waxes enthusiastically about his relationship with the audience as he relates the familiar Christmas story in a startling new way.

"The audience, the collective personality of people who will most likely never be in the same room again together, is the last cast member in the show," the actor declares. "We listen to each other and find our way through the story together.

"This, of course, is true for all live theater, but I have never felt it as personally as with the journey through 'This Wonderful Life.' It feels brand new — every night."

Ann Wareham, the playhouse's new artistic director, echoes his enthusiasm.

"We are thrilled to share the excitement of the season with our patrons and community by presenting this very special and joyous production," she says.

TOM TITUS reviews the local theater scene for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "This Wonderful Life"

Where: The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays, and 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays until Dec. 24

For tickets: Call (949) 497-ARTS (2787) or go to http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com/

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