It probably goes without saying that a one-person show is only as engaging as the person performing it. Beyond just that, though, even if it were equipped with a full-fledged cast of actors, the very notion of a stage version of director Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” would seem to be a somewhat questionable proposition at best.
After all, who could ever forget, say, the memorable scene with James Stewart and Donna Reed energetically dancing in a high-school gymnasium — as the floor behind them opens to reveal a swimming pool, into which they finally plunge — and how in the world could a theater production satisfactorily simulate (never mind top) something like that?
Adapted by former Atlanta playwright (and AJC film critic) Steve Murray, “This Wonderful Life” retells the familiar trials and tribulations of George Bailey, a selfless small-town man who falls on hard times and contemplates suicide, before a heavenly angel named Clarence gives him a chance to see how things might have developed in Bedford Falls had George never been born.
The show has returned for its second annual holiday run in the intimate studio space of Aurora Theatre, where it continues through Dec. 23 (in rotating repertory with another one-man vehicle, artistic director Anthony Rodriguez’s rendition of “A Christmas Carol”).
The movie savant in Murray gets the better of him on occasion. Working in shoutouts to Ellen Corby (the grandmother from TV’s “The Waltons”) or Carl Switzer (Alfalfa from the “Our Gang” serials), both of whom had bit parts in the Capra film, is innocuous enough; plugging Aunt Clara from “Bewitched” or a swimming-pool scene in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” not so much.
Other quibbles involving director Justin Anderson’s design team, based on a recent weekend performance: a couple of faulty lighting cues (designed by Mike Morin), such as when the prerecorded voice of one angel implores Clarence to “look at (George’s) face,” while the character’s standing in total darkness; and designer Cody Russell’s props, which curiously include Zuzu’s famous pedals, but not her actual flower itself.
Which brings us to the amazing Atlanta actor Jeremy Aggers, the singular reason for seeing this version of “Wonderful Life” to begin with. Avid local theatergoers shouldn’t be remotely surprised by his sheer versatility in portraying each and every role in the play — that is, not if they were fortunate to have witnessed his vibrant titular turn in “The Buddy Holly Story,” or his lovelorn loner in “Singles in Agriculture,” or his brooding Bible-thumper in “Edward Foote.”
What some people may not know is that Aggers has a whole other career as a narrator of audiobooks. He’s clearly no stranger to vocalizing all sorts of different characters within the same story, although some of his impressions here (Stewart’s George and Lionel Barrymore’s villainous Mr. Potter) are more spot-on than others (Henry Travers’ Clarence or Thomas Mitchell’s scatterbrained Uncle Billy, to say nothing of Gloria Grahame’s vampy Violet Bick).
Still, in scenes that require him to play two or more people at once, Aggers relies on body language to further inhabit and differentiate between them. In one confrontation, his George sits upright while his Potter slouches, as they rapidly argue back and forth. Earlier on, as George courts his future wife, Mary, he trades quips with his legs apart, she with hers together.
WATCH: 1946 Movie Trailer for “It’s a Wonderful Life”
And when Aggers eventually describes the couple’s dance at the gym, it’s likely you’ll be too transfixed by him to really miss that iconic swimming pool anyway.
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