Gorgeous George: Mark Setlock deftly re-creates It's a Wonderful Life at the Rep

Dec 3, 2008 at 4:00 am
Think of it this way: A favorite relative arrives at a family reunion sporting a shiny new, recently shaved head. At heart Uncle George is the same lovable guy, only now he looks slightly different. That's how it is with This Wonderful Life, this year's holiday offering from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Because the revered 130-minute movie classic It's a Wonderful Life has been shaved down to 75 minutes, the audience is gifted with the opportunity to revisit an all-too-familiar friend from a fresh vantage point.

Before the show begins, as the audience is serenaded with songs from the 1930s and '40s, we have time to peruse the unit set: an old movie theater exterior. The moment Mark Setlock, our enthusiastic narrator, enters the Rep stage through that movie theater door (an arrival that makes for a smooth transition from film to stage), he exclaims, "I love the movie It's a Wonderful Life." Those eight words will remain Setlock's true north. He will never veer from telling the essence of the story. There's no time here for any behind-the-scenes anecdotes, no "I know more about this movie than you do" rank pulling. Jimmy Stewart's name gets mentioned once; director Frank Capra's name, not at all (that I recall).

How rare it is to attend an evening — of what? certainly This Wonderful Life is not a play; let's call it story theater — in which the audience is so constantly ahead of the action. When, for instance, George's bumbling guardian angel finally makes his splashy earthly entrance, Setlock informs us, "The fellow's named...." He pauses, then breaks into a broad grin as he continues, "You all know, don't you?" Of course we do. It's Clarence! All night long an eerie duality is at work: Our responses stem as much from the beloved 1946 movie that is unreeling in our minds as from what's happening onstage.

Yet what's happening onstage should not be taken for granted, for the work here is highly disciplined. Credit writer Steve Murray for cobbling an unobtrusive narrative and director Martha Banta for keeping the show ever flowing. Setlock also gets creative help from scenic designer James Wolk, whose seemingly empty stage is fraught with surprises, and lighting designer Matt Frey, who suggests some of the film's more challenging locales (the swimming pool under the gymnasium floor) with pools of light. Sound designer Jill BC Du Boff has a field day re-creating the film's helpful noises. But this is a one-man show. Workhorse Setlock changes many of the sets himself and enacts twenty characters. (He's especially comfortable as Lionel Barrymore's lizard-tongued Mister Potter.) And he enunciates them all, male and female, young and old alike, with wonderfully clear diction. I did not miss a syllable.

What I did miss was the film's most revelatory moment. The ceremony when George welcomes Mr. and Mrs. Martini into their new home in Bailey Park with bread, salt and wine is the only scene in the entire movie that shows George at work. This is our sole opportunity to see him making his minor yet crucial mark on the world. Setlock and his cohorts have chosen to emphasize other things, including some of the film's incongruities. (How many black people live in Bedford Falls?) By poking some gentle fun at the movie's expense, our guide reminds us that flaws are secondary to a good story.

Billy Wilder, a starkly different kind of director from Capra, once generalized, "The question about a movie is not whether it's good or bad, but whether it's alive or dead. Madame Curie was produced like perfection itself, but what came out in the theaters was dead weight. Casablanca was full of holes as a story, but it was alive as a film and the public loved it." So it is here. No one should dispute that It's a Wonderful Life is a far-from-perfect film. But 62 years after its initial release, it remains very much alive and still firmly embedded in many of our hearts. This Wonderful Life is a lovely appendage. Think of it as an acted-out movie review, endowed with goodwill, unabashed affection, some healthy irreverence and lots of love.