On Theater: Actor makes 'Life' wonderful in Laguna

Few movies can be reinterpreted as one-person plays with any degree of success, yet the Laguna Playhouse has made the concept succeed in two consecutive productions.

Following on the heels of the one-woman "Shirley Valentine," the Playhouse now has the Christmas-themed classic "It's a Wonderful Life" boiled down to a 90-minute exercise in which one actor plays all the roles, from George Bailey down to little Zuzu.

It's hardly breaking new ground — this particular show, entitled "This Wonderful Life," has been performed twice before on other stages. Which only means that actor James Leaming has settled comfortably into the role, lessening the chances of missteps as he both narrates and performs the familiar Frank Capra story, rewritten by Steve Murray and imaginatively directed by Peter Amster.

You couldn't adapt just any old movie in this fashion. You need one that nearly every audience member is familiar with (a show of hands Saturday revealed two or three people who had managed to avoid the Capra classic). This way you can touch on the highlights and instantly gain playgoers' recognition.

Leaming does just that, honing in on the focal points of the story and impersonating the interpretive styles of the actors who played these characters. He does a spot-on Jimmy Stewart and a passable Lionel Barrymore (though his Donna Reed is, intentionally, more caricature than characterization).

On a nearly bare stage, designed by Jeff Dean, with just a few portable props, Leaming takes us back to Bedford Falls, setting the scene as narrator, then performing key moments in character. Since most of us are quite familiar with "It's a Wonderful Life," further exposition is hardly necessary.

In the scene depicting George's saving the angel Clarence from drowning, Leaming actually leaps from a high-wheeled ladder into the wings, drawing a few gasps from the audience. Fortunately, he emerges unscathed.

As Leaming vents his character's anger and angst at being stuck in Bedford Falls at the expense of his dream of world travel, one wonders what possibly kept Stewart from winning the Oscar in 1946 (it went to Frederic March for "The Best Years of Our Lives"). That he already had won it for a less-demanding role in "The Philadelphia Story" is small consolation.

Leaming achieves his objective of capturing and holding his audience's attention as he illustrates this familiar tale. His asides to the audience, figurative nudges in the ribs, are particularly well chosen.

"This Wonderful Life" ushers in the holiday season in Laguna with flair and flourish as Leaming does yeoman duty with this all-time classic movie of loss and redemption at Christmas time.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "This Wonderful Life"

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

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. until Dec. 25

Cost: $30 to $ 65

Call: (949) 497-2787 or visit http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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