THIS WONDERFUL LIFE (Act II): Every time a bell rings…

This Wonderful Life Act II Playhouse in Ambler review

Tony Braithwaite stars in THIS WONDERFUL LIFE, a one-man version of the classic movie, onstage at Act II Playhouse in Ambler from December 6-24, 2016. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Tony Braithwaite re-enacts a holiday film classic in Act II Playhouse’s THIS WONDERFUL LIFE. In transferring what many would call the best Christmas film of all time to the stage, playwright Steve Murray has taken a minimalistic yet endearing approach. He has condensed Frank Capra’s beloved film It’s a Wonderful Life into a one-man show, weaving dialogue straight from the screenplay and his own commentary to create a heartening holiday show. Act II Playhouse’s own artistic director Tony Braithwaite takes the stage as… well, everyone.  

For anyone who has gone this far without seeing It’s A Wonderful Life, the flick is set in the idyllic fictional town of Bedford Falls. It opens on its hero, George Bailey, on the worst night of his life: Christmas Eve, 1945. His life of selflessness and hard work, the sacrifices he’s made for his family and community, may all be for naught. His uncle and business partner, Billy, has accidentally given their business rival and incidental Trump figure Mr. Potter $8,000 cash he had intended to deposit into the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan bank account.

With scandal on the horizon, George contemplates suicide, but is sidetracked by his wingless guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. (If this mission goes well, Clarence will earn his coveted wings.) After George confides in Clarence that he wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows George that he’s “really had a wonderful life.” Clarence proves this lesson in the most visceral way possible—by showing George an alternate reality where Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, and how much worse its townsfolk’s lives would have turned out if it weren’t for George’s presence.

While some characters could have been more distinctive from others through more obvious changes in physicality, Braithwaite does fine work in this self-directed performance. THIS WONDERFUL LIFE serves as an homage to Capra’s film, rather than adaptation. Murray’s script reveres the film while maintaining a comedic approach. By pulling gags like opening the show with a ten-second version of the film before saying “good night, everybody” and feigning an exit, Braithwaite churns out another tongue-in-cheek solo show that have made him an Act II favorite.

Murray also enriches the script by weaving in facts and trivia around the film’s production—for instance, he has the actor substitute a Cary Grant voice for his James Stewart voice during some of George’s lines to tell us that Grant was the original choice for the role. He comments upon inflation rates from the 1940s to today, met with gasps by the audience. A sense of nostalgia and appreciation for the movie’s timely communal theme carry the play from start to finish.

[Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, PA] December 6-24, 2016; act2.org

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About the author

Joshua Millhouse

Josh Millhouse is a writer, performer, and theater administrator based in West Philadelphia. He hopes, in the near future, to self-produce his own work. In the meantime, he's working hard, seeing lots of theater, and enjoying this circuitous pattern of trips to Wawa that is Philly life.