“This Wonderful Life”

photo courtesy of John Lamb

Play: “This Wonderful Life”

Group: Dramatic License Productions

Venue: Dramatic License Theatre at Chesterfield Mall

Dates: December 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19

Tickets: $15-$20; contact 636-220-7012 or www.dramaticlicenseproductions.com

Story: Nearly everyone is familiar with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart as its protagonist, George Bailey. George’s dreams of adventures abroad, far removed from the mundane small-town life he’s known, are abruptly changed when his father dies unexpectedly and George is asked to take over the family business, Bailey Building & Loan. His nemesis is cantankerous old Mr. Potter, who owns virtually everything in Bedford Falls except homes financed by the kindly Bailey family.

When Mr. Potter comes upon a huge sum of money inadvertently left in his newspaper by George’s tipsy Uncle Willie, Potter schemes to bring George and his business down. In his despair, George says he wishes he’d never been born, and so his guardian angel Clarence obliges. George is shown what the world, including his wife Mary, brother Harry and others, would be like without him.

Now, imagine the entire cast of characters in this beloved holiday classic portrayed by one actor with an undying passion for this story, and you have “This Wonderful Life.”

Highlights: Conceived by Mark Setlock and written by Steve Murray, “This Wonderful Life” is a brisk, captivating one-man tour de force wherein our narrator essays the roles of some 40 characters in the beloved holiday classic. A charming version of this one-act, 75-minute tale was performed two seasons back by Setlock at The Rep, but I suspect that the author would be just as enchanted as the rest of the audience with Alan Knoll’s current performance at Dramatic License Productions.

Other Info: From the opening moments, when Knoll as the narrator sits transfixed in his living room watching wide-eyed the triumphant optimism of Capra and Stewart, the accomplished actor unveils an ingratiating performance that keeps the mood of merriment constant. If his Jimmy Stewart impression isn’t the best, his Lionel Barrymore impersonation is consistently on the mark both in inflection and mannerisms. As for the rest of the characters, aren’t they all just supporting roles to the hero and villain?

Knoll is at the top of his craft as he segues quickly between an exasperated George and a devoted Mary, a gruff Nick the bartender, the “lovable” stereotypes of Annie the black maid or Mr. Martini the Italian tavern proprietor, Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver (those intrepid inspirers of the “Sesame Street” muppets), daffy Uncle Willie, tiny Zuzu Bailey and, of course, kindly Clarence in need of a good deed to earn his angel wings.

Knoll the director keeps Knoll the actor moving smoothly through his paces, aided immeasurably by the properties and set decoration assembled by Peggy Knock and Kim Furlow, who fill the stage walls with posters from the movie as well as studio glamour shots of Stewart and Donna Reed.

This supports the fervor of the narrator for the film and complements scenes from the movie itself such as the broken banister in the Bailey home or Mr. Potter’s creaky office chair on Ian Stoutenburgh’s carefully appointed set, which he lights precisely in a couple of specifically selected scenes. Bobby Miller’s sound design adds to the atmosphere with tinkling bells, broken glass and other familiar noises, while Furlow’s costume design underscores the narrator’s childlike wonder.

Breezy and nostalgic, “This Wonderful Life” is a welcome refuge to any harried shopper’s foray through Chesterfield Mall in search of an ideal holiday gift.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.