By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
Given enough time, some jerk will eventually turn everything a culture holds dear into camp. For a recent example, see People's Light's production of Steve Murray's This Wonderful Life.
In fairness, Frank Capra's beloved It's a Wonderful Life supplies plenty of fodder for a campy approach. Murray's one-person show bursts with snarky remarks or ridiculous exaggeration, picking on the movie's low budget effects, poking fun at a young George Bailey's curious resemblance to Jimmy Stewart, noticing the cameo role played by Alfalfa from The Little Rascals or ridiculing the mashed lips and smushed cheeks of George and Mary's first kiss.
For 75 minutes, actor Jerry Richardson serves up a running commentary while reenacting most of the film's scenes. His versatile performance shifts unnoticeably through a portrayal of over two dozen parts—crouching into Potter's wheelchair, or squatting as Zuzu to tug on George's coat—as he embellishes each character's voice with humorous caricature.
Murray's approach forces us to step back a bit from nostalgic sentimentality. For a Christmas show, "Did you ever notice how much of this film is about money?" Richardson asks; later he calls attention to the film's stereotypes of eager Italian immigrants and sassy African-American housekeepers. Or maybe George just fears success? Given Richardson's portrayal of world-weary fatigue, Murray could have titled his show "Stuck in Bedford Falls."
But David Bradley's balanced direction and Gregory Scott Miller's captivating lighting ensures that like the best camp, this production pokes its fun from a place of sincere affection, never once diminishing the magic of Capra's tale.
And just like the film, the magic still works, even if "in quotes." Waves of applause rippled through the audience after each of George's self-sacrifices or moments of redemption, and everyone leapt to their feet after the rapid wrap-up when the angel Clarence finally gets his wings. At People's Light, this campy take finds that sappy, sentimental center that even the snarkiest Scrooge would smile at.
This Wonderful Life. Runs through December 23 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd. Malvern. Tickets: $25 to $35. Information: 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org