In order to like or identify with a character, you have to feel sympathy for his plight. Take George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Whatever you may think of his stand against the Mr. Potters of the world, the movie hinges on whether an audience indulges his moment of self-pity on the bridge before he jumps.
I mention Bailey because I have never felt sympathy for him and because The Story of My Life, now receiving an emotionally potent production at Delaware Theatre Company, borrows heavily from Frank Capra's film, if to ultimately different effect.
Lyricist Neil Bartram takes his cues from Stephen Sondheim, here watered down in cleverness. Brian Hill's book begins with a eulogy, delivered by Tom (Ben Dibble, recently in the Arden's Parade) for his best friend, Alvin (Rob McClure, Chaplin on Broadway). If it sounds melancholy, well, it is.
The pair sing the story of their friendship, starting in first grade, when Alvin dresses in his dead mother's bathrobe for Halloween. While Alvin grows into an even weirder adolescent and reclusive bookshop owner, Tom becomes a best-selling short-story writer.
Their friendship fragments, and if the play opens with a eulogy, you can imagine what happens. Bud Martin's direction and Jim Leitner's lighting evolve in intensity to match events, changing in pace and quality from serene to reflective to frenetic and surreal. The effect builds cumulatively, like being lulled into a drug-induced nap and slowly enticed through a dreamscape of conflicting, complex emotions.
Thanks mostly to Dibble's subtle, satisfying transformation, the musical ultimately transcends its melancholy plot to celebrate friendship and community. And although the play poses delicate, unresolved themes about what we owe the people in our lives, and how much responsibility we bear for their choices, as with George Bailey, I felt no sympathy for Alvin, whom McClure plays with an apt, alienating awkwardness.
But that doesn't mean I felt nothing.
Like Capra's film, this musical verges on asking us to feel pity. But then it wisely retreats, letting even the sterner among us enjoy the production's realization that, for a few decades, Tom had a friendship that made him the richest man in town.
The Story of My Life
Through Dec. 22 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington.
Tickets: $35 to $50.
Information: 302-594-1100 or www.DelawareTheatre.org