In place of its usual production of A Christmas Carol, the Renaissance Project theater this year has chosen for its holiday offering It’s A Wonderful Life.
“It’s sort of an American Christmas Carol,” observed the theater’s producing artistic director Michael Cole.
There are some interesting parallels in the two stories. Both, of course, center on a life-changing Christmas experience. Both dip into the past to unravel a complex present and both have supernatural intervention to help the main character see things to which he had been blind. Both classics proclaim the triumph of such values as friendship and compassion over money. It’s A Wonderful Life, like A Christmas Carol, has a trouble-making cynical old miser, in this case banker Henry Potter, wonderfully played in very Lionel Barrymore-like (Potter in the movie) fashion by Cole.
While the movie It’s a Wonderful Life was based on a short story, The Greatest Gift, the play draws more on Frank Capra’s movie than the original work. The story, for the benefit of those who haven’t watched the 1946 movie lately, is of George Bailey, a young man who dreams of leaving his hometown Bedford Falls, N.Y., to do great things. He is held back by the need to keep the family business, Bailey Building and Loan Association, out of the hands of the money-grubbing Potter. A mistake by his well-meaning but absent-minded uncle leaves George positioned not only to lose his business to Potter, but to go to prison as well. The prayers of his family and friends are answered when Clarence Odbody, an angel who’s trying to earn his wings, steps in as George is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. The angel—much like the spirits in A Christmas Carol—shows George the impact his life has had on those around him.
As with A Christmas Carol, this Renaissance Project production draws on scripture for inspiration—the theater, after all, is on the campus of a church. Director Elisha Hodgins states in her program notes, “Instead of looking for the Christ-like traits in the character whose main problem is self-sacrifice, I began looking at the lives of the disciples. The 12 disciples were average Joes who weren’t at the top of their class and probably didn’t have wonderful reputations…they were asked to lay everything they had ever wanted down and sacrifice their lives to better themselves and their community at large.”
The Renaissance Project has done a laudable job of adapting the movie to the physical limitations of the stage, with parts of the story being told by Patricia McLaughlin as Odbody’s superintendent angel. She joins an all-around fine cast that includes Trivon Howard and Kara Michele Wilder in roles made famous by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Chase Steven Anderson is delightful as Odbody. I was especially impressed at how well players pulled off some rather tricky physical maneuvers.
I was pleased to see a good opening night turnout for this play. This worthy community theater does not draw the audiences it deserves. Especially, those who live in south DeKalb County should schedule a holiday treat for themselves by seeing this moving production.
Renaissance Project plays are performed on the campus of Traveler’s Rest Baptist Church, 4650 Flat Shoals Parkway, Decatur. It’s A Wonderful Life is on stage Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through Dec. 16. There is a 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 15. Tickets are $16. For more information, call (678) 250-4800 or visit. http://www.trp-atl.org.