Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is a beloved holiday classic today. The two-hour-and-10-minute black-and-white film is as sentimental as movies come (“Capra-corn”), but there’s an edge to it, as there is in Capra’s 1941 populist comedy-drama Meet Joe Doe; for all the angels getting their wings, there’s Depression-inspired criticism of greedy businessmen. Clarence, the challenged angel, tries to get his wings, but the Bedford Falls community also organizes and saves George Bailey and his credit union from a corrupt predatory lender. As with that other immortal classic of the season, A Christmas Carol, greed loses out to need in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the soulless businessman is thwarted. So hoist eggnog to being in this world all together and bask in the glow of a communal fire and a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Those not having 130 minutes for Capra’s film can take in the 70-minute version, This Wonderful Life, well-staged at Capital Repertory Theatre. Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill crisply and delightfully wraps this foreshortened glimmer of Capra’s film around the talents of Larry Daggett as an Elwood P. Dowd-like patron sitting in Capital Rep’s space to watch It’s A Wonderful Life on a pull-down screen; Jo Winiarski’s wonderful movie-theater set, complete with marquee advertising It’s A Wonderful Life, gives the perfect setting for Daggett to dash through the dozens of characters in Capra’s classic.
After the standing ovation for Daggett’s ability to whirl through characters from It’s A Wonderful Life, the most oft heard comment in the lobby was “It’s A Wonderful Life was just on television last night. It was just on.” It was. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.
What might have saved This Wonderful Life from being just a curiosity and holiday seat-filler would be exploiting what the film does, which is to bravely show “the greatest gift of all: what life would be like without you,” and show what happens when a community is created. A theater audience, for the briefest time, is a community, and a braver choice might be to include the audience in the work. Leave the houselights on, pour a few drinks, and use that communal space instead of replicating what can be done at homes or in movie theaters. Draw people together; It’s a Wonderful Life is, at its heart, about that.
Or, as Alan Cumming’s essentially one-man Macbeth did during the summer, take a new tack on a well-known work and explore. Cumming’s Macbeth was a 90-minute revelation, and, strangely, I saw the briefest of echoes in Daggett’s playing the courting of George and Mary.
But if you can’t fast-forward your copy of It’s a Wonderful Life quick enough through the slower parts, This Wonderful Life will do through Dec. 22.