Sunset’s “Wonderful Life” a bittersweet end for Salentine
George Bailey stands at the bridge railing high above the set at the Sunset Playhouse, on both a literal and emotional brink: is he worth more dead than alive? The beloved holiday story fittingly begins and ends there, as Sunset Playhouse presents Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life.
A depressing twist on opening weekend mixes theatrics with reality as Sunset’s Artistic Director and Acting Director for this production, Mark Salentine, announces his seven-year position has been eliminated at the 50-year-old organization. From the stage, Salentine explains that when dreams drift away under everyday pressures, a wonderful life lies behind and in his future.
Back on the brink of the set bridge, George Bailey (Randall T. Anderson) meets his guardian angel, AS2, Clarence Oddbody, who shows him his past deeds and what life would be without him. One rarely contemplates what differences there would be if “they hadn’t been born,” and Clarence insightfully insists to George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives that when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Anderson leaves no holes in his performance, and holds the cast, story and Capra’s script, adapted by James Rodgers, together with profound believability. He acts, appears and sounds as someone the audience could connect to without any false sentiment, including the self-sacrificing George Bailey. Anderson’s affection for childhood sweetheart Mary Hatch, played by the lovely Ruth Arnell, reflects a deep commitment that again binds the production with genuine sincerity.
Richard Wenzel, an engaging 80-year old actor, narrates George’s life from the second story bridge as the angel trying to earn his wings after 200 years.
The audience sees the set transform through lighting designer Marty Waller’s clever backdrops projected above the changing scenes. This coordinates with Michael Desper’s rotating set designs which quickly and seamlessly move George from setting to setting around Bedford Falls. The green and red color scheme somewhat distracts from the stage action and works better with a more neutral background, like the one used when Clarence transports George to Pottersville because he no longer exists.
The stage adaptation misses some finer details the film’s fans will miss, yet when the community rallies to support George in the production finale the message that every life contributes through unique events resounds loud and clear. Sunset Playhouse charmingly recaptures this seasonal cheer amid contemporary economic disappointments and continual world apprehensions in the Far East.
Elm Grove’s Sunset Playhouse presents It’s A Wonderful Life through December 19. Buy tickets online or by phone at 262.782.4430