Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

This Wonderful Life
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Jerry Kraft

Also see David's review of My Mañana Comes

Chris Carwithen
Photo by Chris Convery
Like most people, I think I've seen the film It's a Wonderful Life just about enough times. However, when I found out that This Wonderful Life, currently being produced by the fledgling Aurora Theatre Company, would present the story and all thirty-six of its characters through a single actor, I was interested. The script, by Steve Murray and conceived by Mark Setlock, brings an intimacy and humanity that are central to the original story. It was originally commissioned and produced by Portland Center Stage, and this is its Seattle debut. On a minimal set and with the actor wearing a single costume throughout, everything depends on the quality and veracity of that sole actor telling us the story.

Fortunately, young Chris Carwithen has all that it takes, and the direction by Scott Charles Francis keeps everything perfectly scaled and never saccharine or schmaltzy. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for Carwithen is that it never feels like he is trying too hard, over-acting, or showboating. That makes the play feel less like a retelling of the original story and more like Carwithen sharing a story he carries within himself, like his own, deeply personal story that he is setting out for us like a present beneath the tree. That feeling is critical to sustaining the intimacy and personality of the original George Bailey. Over the course of the show's non-stop eighty minutes, we not only revisit all of the familiar characters and their stories, but we rediscover why each and every one of them is a part of this guy who's standing in front of us. And we are reminded of how they have become a part of each of us.

Beginning on perhaps the bleakest Christmas Eve imaginable, George feels like he's failed his family, his friends, and the whole community. He wonders if there is any point in going on, and stands on a bridge contemplating ending it all. Suddenly, he hears screams for help from an older man who is drowning in the river. That man is Clarence, an angel-in-waiting who has been sent to save George from himself. He intends to do this by transporting George to a future world where he has no wife and his children don't exist, the entire community has no independence from the evil banker Mr. Potter, and George never saves his younger brother Harry from downing at age 12. We rapidly discover that success in life has almost nothing to do with money, and everything to do with our commitments and relationships with others. As a result, George returns to the present and does everything he can to save the community, save his family, and save himself. Clarence gets his angel wings and George gets a whole new appreciation of how much life itself really means. The joy that this story brings to the holiday season is the joy of rediscovering for ourselves how much our commitment to doing the right thing, to being there for others, and to living our own integrity has to do with finding real satisfaction in our lives.

Among the many things I admire in Chris Carwithen's performance is the fact that all of the characters are well-defined, but never overdone. Little kids and grumpy neighbors and a fallen angel and a nasty banker are all created with only slight changes in his voice and the momentum of the story. This is one of those roles where an actor could spend the entire production showing off and over-playing every character, but Carwithen never does that. By the end of the show, I felt like this talented young actor was just as authentically human as George himself, and that it was really his privilege and joy to share this deeply personal story with all of us. That is a great way to start the holiday theatre season.

Aurora Theatre Company's This Wonderful Life plays through November 28, 2015, at 8pm Thursday through Saturday at the Firdale Village Theatre, 9673 Firdale Avenue, Edmonds, WA just north of Shoreline in Edmonds. There is also a 2pm performance on November 28th. Tickets are available at

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