This Wonderful Life
Martin Burke's solo performance of 'It's a Wonderful Life' is a tour de force, but also an act of faith
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 20, 2013
This Wonderful LifeZach Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 29
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.
So much comes down to faith. When one of the heavenly agents who dispatches aid to mortals in crisis questions the intelligence of Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, for a mission in Bedford Falls, his colleague counters, "But he has the faith of a child." When the subject of Clarence's assignment tries to persuade the depositors in his family's building and loan association not to panic and withdraw their funds, he tells them, "We've got to have faith in each other." This man, who I suspect you know is named George Bailey, demonstrates his faith in others and his God throughout the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, and when Martin Burke states his desire to recount that story for a Zach Theatre audience, portraying George, Clarence, and some three dozen other characters in Frank Capra's now-canonized yuletide tale all by himself, he does so with faith of his own: in his abilities as an actor, in this parable that deserves to be shared, and in us to attend to it and find meaning there.
That Burke's expression of love for It's a Wonderful Life may come from Steve Murray's script for this one-man stage adaptation matters little, because the actor imbues his performance with such a palpable affection for, and belief in, the film. To borrow a joke that Burke himself makes here, punning on the title of another of his solo shows at Zach, he's "fully committed," and as he moves through George's history, with all its sacrifices and disappointments that blind him to its joys and accomplishments, and then into the disorienting, terrifying vision of life if he'd never been born, Burke becomes an evangelist for its message that, as Clarence puts it, "Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole." He never oversells the point, in part because Murray gives him room to acknowledge the one-man-show conceit and tease its absurdities, as well as some of the film's (A bank examiner working Christmas Eve? Really?), but mostly because director Richard Robichaux brings such clarity to the storytelling, focusing Burke's efforts so he captures each character's essence and can shift from one to another with moves as simple as a tilt of his head. That elegance extends to the understated set by Ia Ensterä, Jason Amato's lighting, K. Eliot Haynes' sound, and Blair Hurry's costume.
Ultimately, though, this is Burke's vehicle. But unlike Fully Committed or The Santaland Diaries, here he doesn't so much take the stage as give it, to this story about faith. And whether or not we know the tale already, we come to believe in it because Burke does, so honestly.