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Photograph by Pat Kirk
TREE TRIMMER: Dan Hiatt puts the finishing touches on San Jose Rep's 'This Wonderful Life.'

Hiatt Life

Dan Hiatt takes all the parts in San Jose Rep's adaptation of 'It's a Wonderful Life.'

By Marianne Messina

PLAYWRIGHT Steve Murray has churned Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life into a thrifty (producer's math), one-man retelling for the stage, This Wonderful Life. Sorry to say, San Jose Repertory Theatre adopted this tepid cash cow and fed the talented, award-winning actor Dan Hiatt to it. Hiatt does a great Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed (did Reed really pucker that much?) and others. In fact, the show starts with promise as Hiatt streaks through all the film's memorable lines in all the memorable voices, perhaps in under a minute.

The pretext for retelling the film is that we all want to hear the story of how nice guy George Bailey gets stuck in a one-good-girl town and doesn't mind much until he goes into foreclosure debt the likes of which we see on the news every day. At that point, George decides that maybe jumping off a snowy bridge might be the best thing for Mary and the kids: "You're worth more dead than alive," taunts the craggy-faced, mercenary Mr. Potter.

Compared to the cynicism this play inspires, the narrator's lightly cynical asides are of the mildest sort. Hiatt casually looks at us and says, "Have you noticed how much this story is about money?" (Heh-hem.) Introducing and emulating the simmering "bad girl" Violet Bick (originally, a blond Gloria Grahame), Hiatt/narrator quips that she's "studying Vamp 101," and later he comments that bad girls and small towns don't go together well. But even these asides are kept to a minimum, presumably to squeeze in all the film's high points but actually keeping the play's humor Xanax-gentle, with no jarring surprises.

Of course, the Rep's exceptional designers wrap this utility vehicle in some interesting craft, polish and sparkle. Sound designer Jeff Mockus uses sound placement to make the stage seem populous. Voices leap from varying stage depths and into the auditorium; the leaking roof of George and Mary's drafty home seems to drip over the audience. So-'40s orchestral strings well up at all the heartwarming moments. Flanked by Bedford Falls' small-town buildings with the homey backlit windows (lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert), the set is colorfully warm (scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts), and scenes change by way of representative set pieces—an indoor stairway, an outside front door, etc.

Cuthbert also takes up the creative slack with a large elliptical tree ornament hung from the flies that doubles as a projection screen. Hyatt aims flashlights and a laser pointer at the screen where, on a starry sky, they simulate the film's corny angelic "special effects." Projections also create lively rainfall, and later snowfall, across the stage. In re-creating the blizzardous night and the snow-covered bridge where George dances the to-be-or-not-to-be tango, Roberts and Cuthbert give us the play's finest imagery, striking the perfect blend of beauty and desolation. In its quaint, "olden days" way, the film made old man predatory-lender Potter the bad guy, when we now realize the bad seeds are the people who dare to buy houses above their means. Maybe Murray doesn't miss this cynical cultural shift when the narrator mutters, "Yes, kids, those bullies that shake you down for your lunch money are going to be CEOs someday."

THIS WONDERFUL LIFE, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, with a Wednesday at 11am show Dec. 19 through Dec. 23 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18–$52. (408.367.7255)

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