Theatergoers have wondered what would replace A Christmas Story ever since the Cleveland Play House announced last year that its five-year-running stage version of the classic 1983 holiday film would not return in 2010.
Michael Bloom, the Play House's artistic director, answered with another holiday story that's as packed with nostalgia as a triple-dog dare -- This Wonderful Life, a one-man version of the iconic Jimmy Stewart film It's a Wonderful Life. Like its predecessor, This Wonderful Life, which opens Nov. 26, also has a Cleveland connection. It was co-created by native son Mark Setlock, a former actor and playwright who now lives in New York City.
"A Christmas Story had tailed off a bit in sales," Bloom explains. "This Wonderful Life was on my radar. I knew we were going to produce it at some point."
The play, which Bloom describes as "very clever, touching and funny," appealed to him because he says patrons of various religions can enjoy it. "Although it certainly has a Christmas theme, it also has a broader, universal theme of how one man can make a difference."
When Bloom learned Setlock was not available for the show, he turned to James Leaming. The 54-year-old actor and co-founder of the Chicago-based American Blues Theater had played main character George Bailey for six seasons in his troupe's stage adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life, a production presented in the form of a live 1940s radio show with four actors in front of microphones. He subsequently mastered the 38 roles in This Wonderful Life -- everyone from Bailey to his wife, Mary, to the family dog -- during a 2008 stint in Sarasota, Fla., and a 2009 run in Syracuse, N.Y.
Although the original script for This Wonderful Life called for set changes, Leaming works on an empty stage with two tables, a chair, a rolling ladder and a cardholder with placards that indicate scene locations. "Simplicity makes it more powerful -- that's what I learned from doing the [radio-style] play," he says.
He insists that playing all the residents of Bedford Falls in the same 1940s jacket, vest and slacks is surprisingly easy. "It's just a clarity, a point of view of each character," he says. He even helps patrons find their seats before he takes the stage. But Leaming admits he literally works up a sweat during his multifaceted performance.
"It's like the Bedford Falls workout," he jokes. "My clothes are soaked. My shoes are soaked. It's a piece of work that has to move quickly."