Saturday, December 5, 2020

'Wonderful Life' senses the heartbeat of a beloved movie in IRT's streaming holiday production

George Bailey's life is under angelic supervision. 

The fast-paced backstage summary of Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production of "This Wonderful
Lfe" introduces virtual audiences both to the material, already familiar to fans of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," and the play's sole actor here, the protean Rob Johansen. The performance is accessible online through January 3.

Johansen, as the expression goes, needs no introduction, particularly to IRT audiences who have seen him in 48 company roles up to now. So all will recognize the actor's characteristic manner of bringing everything in his performances forward in intimate connection with an audience. It bursts forth from the start, as WFYI-TV's cameras follow him from dressing room through corridors and via stairways onto the main stage. All this revs up the nostalgia engine while he is rattling off bits from the script, inviting the viewer to become nearly as breathlessly committed to the story as he is.

As a movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" captured American feelings of hope and renewal after the rigors of World War II. A small-town businessman who as a young man yearned to put his life upon the world stage grows into a thoroughly domesticated good citizen of Bedford Falls: George Bailey becomes associated with readiness to do good as he matures. Soon we are made aware that Johansen, under the scrupulous direction of Benjamin Hanna, is effectively populating Bedford Falls with the Dickensian vividness of his characterizations.

Bailey on the brink of a bad decision.

Physically and vocally attuned to such requirements, Johansen also never moves us far from the heart of the story.  We are drawn from the way George's progress is checked by some crucial accidents into the threat posed by the town's chief mover and shaker, the banker Mr. Potter. Naturally, all the goodness that seems so abundant in Bedford Falls is subject to Johansen's gift for nuance and differentiation; but so is the abiding evil summed up in Potter. In a riveting impersonation, the actor makes his features gnarled, his glare menacing, and his postures snakelike. 

We sometimes speak of great screen actors as having a love affair with the camera. Though necessarily Johansen has to be a screen actor in a virtual presentation marked by IRT's usual thorough professionalism of design, he remains a stage artist extraordinaire.

It's a compliment to Johansen's performance that he puts across 100 minutes of narrative and 30-character portrayals as if he were onstage before theatergoers filling the IRT's seats. The nuances and subtleties are as indelible as the huge, space-filling moments. The camera is doing its job perfectly, but in the best sense, Johansen ignores it. He plays to the back row as fully as to the front row, just as he does in crowded theaters. The bliss of our experience of "This Wonderful Life" is that we are all in the front row, feeling every line and gesture imprinted on our attention and absorption in the drama.

Of course, the supernatural element in the story shapes its meaning. The flashing of lamps in George's environment represents the angelic planning of a mission to save him, with apprentice angel Clarence supervised by well-established senior colleagues, Franklin and Joseph (a trio voiced, but not embodied, by Johansen). That sets up the play's narrative, all under the actor's superb command, dipping into and out of the lives of everyone concerned. Johansen's evocation of the film's star, Jimmy Stewart, is unassailably right, yet without excessive mimicry.

Bailey's suicidal despair one Christmas Eve gets corrected by a revelation of what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. His wish for that fundamental avoidance is granted provisionally. The vision is enabled by Clarence, working to earn his wings with an earthly intervention that will allow one good man to realize how essential his existence has been to the promise of this wonderful life. Steve Murray's adaptation and IRT's production reaffirm that promise, a balm for this time of global anxiety and doubt.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]









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