This fairytale for adults really hits home this Christmas, when money grabbing Mister Potters are suddenly everywhere.
There can't be many people in America who haven't seen It's A Wonderful Life by now, since it's become a Christmas classic, but the Irish Rep's joyful new production is here to remind us it's far from the sentimental tearjerker many remember.
For a start, there is some real anguish hidden under the hood. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, after all the greatest generation, as they have come to be known, had lived through the boom and bust of the roaring 20's, then on through the increasingly harsh deprivations of the Depression, only to find their lives upended again by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Second World War.
There's not much room for pushovers in a history that crowded with incident, which is why the tough but tender characters that assemble onstage for the Rep's new telling of the classic tale look and sound exactly right.
Director Charlotte Moore handles the material with skill. Yes, it's a Christmas show, and yes, that suggests one should hew a little closer to peace than to conflict, but the fact is there are real and far reaching consequences to the struggles that play out on the stage, a fact she never loses sight of once, which helps this fairytale for adults hit home.
It's Christmas Eve 1946 in the every town USA of Bedford Falls and local man George Bailey (Aaron Gaines) has become suicidal. Faced with an unexpected crisis that will bring scandal and ruination to the small Bailey Building and Loan company he heads up, he is contemplating ending it all with a quick jump from a snow covered bridge into the icy waters below.
Before he can carry out his plan though another man jumps into the water in front of him and good old George does the one thing he can always be depended on to do: he help's. It turns out that the other man is a hundreds of years old angel called Clarence (Dewey Caddell) who has been sent to earth to aid poor George (and finally get his wings in exchange).
Anthony E. Palermo's inspired adaptation is set in a radio studio, where the actors read and perform the script live on the air before a studio audience (that's us). This allows the theatre to stage the play on a shoestring and yet cover much of the ground of the original short story and film.
It also allows gifted actors like Rep regular Orlagh Cassidy and talented newcomer Dewey Caddell to give full scope to their range playing half a town's worth of characters of all ages and both sexes. The pair are rarely out of the spotlight and between them give life to the tale.
As poor benighted but thoroughly decent George, Aaron Gaines is a pleasant facsimile of Jimmy Stewart but he's also his own man. Gaines makes you truly believe in the basic decency and bone deep principles of his staunch but sensitive character and that's an achievement in itself.
As his girlfriend Mary (Haley Bond) creates a romantic connection with George that makes you believe in their star-crossed bond from the moment they appear together. Bond brings real life experience and smarts to a chaster that could easily become a cypher in less talented hands, a tribute to her own skills.
Ian Holcomb becomes a director within the play and also sic other characters with remarkable range and focus. He keeps everything moving but does it so well you might not even notice how much concentration it actually takes.
Rory Duffy, another talent Rep player, elicits laughs as the Sounds Effects guy and fits seamlessly into the talented ensemble cast when the script requires it (it often does).
What is perhaps most striking about this perfectly played seasonal production is how timely it has become. Once again we are facing down another greedy generation of Mr. Potter's come to fleece us of the roofs over our heads and future's we have worked for.
The tension between the losses of yesterday and the yearning for a brighter tomorrow bookend this happy and haunting season and the two songs that open and close it: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Auld Lang Syne. Life and this play happen somewhere in between them. You'll go home cheered by the exchange.