STONEHAM — The trick to any stage version of the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to present the world of Bedford Falls and its citizens in a way that respects audiences’ memories of the 1946 film.
At the Stoneham Theatre, director Caitlin Lowans and adapter Weylin Symes understand that. Symes’s script hews closely to the screenplay, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett with the movie’s director, Frank Capra. In fact, the bulk of Symes’s work is judicious editing; the play clocks in about 20 minutes shorter than the film. The only major change he and Lowans make is turning nasty old Mr. Potter into Mrs. Potter, and while that seems like an odd choice, Bobbie Steinbach is such an impressive chameleon that it isn’t too distracting. Stoneham’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is accomplished, but never inspired.
The hero of the tale is George Bailey, played by James Stewart in the film and Mark Linehan at Stoneham. A good man from a small town called Bedford Falls, he finds all his work threatened by a greedy businessman named Potter. When, in desperation, George decides he’s worth more dead than alive, an angel is sent to dissuade him from suicide, helping him realize how much he’s done for the people around him. Although the film is more than six decades old, the juxtaposition of unsympathetic finance types with average folks just struggling to get by feels quite contemporary. The screenplay is peopled with characters grounded in reality, even with a theme as broad as good versus evil.
At Stoneham, scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord has done a terrific job fitting all of Bedford Falls onstage, cleverly using a folding door frame and a few simple set pieces to delineate different locations. The symbolic bridge, from which George considers jumping, looms over everything. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley does wonders with the period costumes, adding all the right accessories to make sure everyone blends together.
Linehan, as George, and Erin Brehm, as his wife, Mary, are striking stand-ins for the memorable Stewart and Donna Reed. Linehan, like Stewart, is tall and lanky, and he mimics many of Stewart’s mannerisms. Brehm delivers all Mary’s warmth and determination, without ever making her too cloying.
William Gardiner is a sweet and charming Clarence, the guardian angel assigned to George. In a nice touch, Gardiner doubles as George’s father. The children who play little George and Mary Bailey (Max Roberts and Heather Buccini) are quite strong, and Lowans has created a unified supporting cast for a believable group of townspeople.
Lowans keeps the proceedings moving swiftly, almost too swiftly: The production begins to feel like highlights from the film strung together, rather than a story with some dramatic tension. But perhaps that’s just a response from someone too familiar with the film. This production is a pleasant reenactment of it, with a fitting holiday message.