EDITOR’S NOTE: Nancy Rich’s husband, videographer Rod Rich, taped the online version of this show. The following review is based on the final edited version of that video-on-demand production. — R.W.M.
“The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for 4,000 years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” — John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War
Despite 2020’s hurdles, Raleigh Little Theatre has not stopped doing theater. In addition to offering online classes for teens, children, and adults, RLT presented a season. It was not the season that they had originally planned. Like other local theaters, RLT had to pivot — and pivot they did.
In October, they gave us Waiting for the Host: Parts 1 & 2, a play-within-a-play performed over a video conferencing platform. For Halloween, The Midnight Dreary Festival solicited community creations shared over RLT‘s social media channels.
In November, it was a family-friendly outdoor limited-audience production of Balloonacy in the Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre â€“ RLT‘s first in-person performance since March. Now, for the first time in months, Raleigh Little Theatre is opening the doors to its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre for a live (limited) indoor general-admission audience for their holiday production of This Wonderful Life, starting at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 17-19, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20th. In addition, a prerecorded version of the show will be streamed via Broadway on Demand on Dec. 17-25.
Steve Murray’s 2000 play, This Wonderful Life, calls for a single performer to act out Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. If you’re one of those people who “re-watches” this movie every year, you’ll probably be able to recite much of the dialogue performed by Amy (White) Pridgen.
I won’t cover the plot of the movie, because chances are you’ve seen it at least once. NBC is running the movie this year for free on NBC.com, if you don’t mind watching commercials for Cologuard®. NBC’s description of the plot is amusingly concise: “A family man sees life anew thanks to his guardian angel.” Yep, that’s what happens.
The show opens with Pridgen casually strolling onto the stage and briefly chatting with the audience. She performs a highlight reel of quotes from the film at lightning speed, immediately demonstrating her ability to mimic the characters’ voices, along with her capacity for using physical indicators — a gesture, body carriage, or an expression — to distinguish one character from another.
There are dozens of citizens in Bedford Falls, and Pridgen plays pretty much every one of them. When not portraying a Bedfallian, she slides into narrator-mode in order to move the action along or to provide context. It’s especially fun when she pauses to describe certain characters: “He bears a striking resemblance to Jimmy Stewart,” for example. From time to time, Pridgen utilizes a candy-striped control box to manipulate the lights or sound.
This Wonderful Life whittles a two-hour movie down to a 75-minute play. RLT artistic director Patrick Torres has focused on using the spoken word and stage blocking to present the story in a fresh and creative way. It’s obvious that Torres and Pridgen have collaborated harmoniously. Torres has found the soul of the play, and Pridgen has found its heart.
Dennis R. Berfield’s set is artistically spare: a stool, a staircase (with a banister knob that comes off, of course), a Christmas tree, a chair, and a desk unit that is used for a variety of purposes. Berfield has hung a vintage sign panel that serves as a projection screen for the scene locations: “You are now in Bedford Falls.” Prop master Jason Barker has paid close attention to detail with the props — including a vintage newspaper and a lovely old candlestick telephone.
Sound designer Juan Isler and soundboard operator Noah Zimmerman provide all the sound effects and recorded snippets of dialogue needed to fill out a sensory picture — my favorite being the big splash when George and Mary fall into the pool. Stage manager Cynita Lew and assistant stage manager Rachel Maselli run a tight ship; and if there were any technical flubs, they were not apparent to this critic.
Jeremy Diamond’s lighting design not only aids the show’s transitions, it creates all the moods needed — from a bright-and-boisterous party, to a dark Pottersville, to the romantic “light of the moon.” Jenny Mitchell’s costume design for Pridgen is unexpected and delightful. One would think an actor playing multiple roles might wear something neutral, but Mitchell presents us with a jaunty plaid man’s suit, which Pridgen uses brilliantly to physically embody different ages and genders.
I strongly encourage you to celebrate the holiday season with this This Wonderful Life. Due to current gathering restrictions, a maximum of 25 tickets will be sold for each Dec. 17-20 performance. COVID-19 safety procedures and rules for visiting the theater are on the RLT website. From Dec. 17th to 25th, you will also be able to stream a prerecorded performance in the comfort of your home via Broadway on Demand.
Click here for in-person tickets and here fot Broadway on Demand tickets. A digital playbill is available online at RaleighLittleTheatre.org. For more information, telephone 919-821-3111 or e-mail email@example.com.
Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.