Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ at Aurora Players

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has been an essential ingredient of the holiday season since the film first premiered in 1946, almost as indispensable as eggnog and ugly sweaters. Some families enjoy the holiday tradition of watching IAWL (the movie) on Christmas Eve, while others catch a production of the timeless classic on stage (by my count there are at least two currently playing at WNY theatres). Aurora Players, one of the region’s oldest community theatre groups, is staging the timeless classic until December 9th.   

. . .captures the story’s spirit. . .particularly during the Christmas season.

Over 70 years and endless variations (movie, play, one-man-play, musical, radio show, etc.) later, the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is surely by now in the DNA of Christmas lovers everywhere. Based on the film by Frank Capra and the story by Peter Van Doren Stern, it tells the story of George Bailey (Joe Cassidy), the manager of his family’s local building & loan in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, who—as the story opens– is on the cusp of taking his own life after misplacing $8,000 of the b&l’s money (per, the modern-day equivalent of $102,139!). Just in the nick of time, George is interrupted by Clarence Odbody AS2 (Bob Aquila), a guardian angel who shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds over the years.

George Bailey acts as the story’s main protagonist, a selfless character who has become as associated with the season as Santa Claus. Cassidy—AP’s George—says that “George’s selflessness and compassion embody the Christmas spirit.  He’s the kind of friend everybody wants to have and around whom everybody wants to rally.” Cassidy brought this quality to the surface quite well in his depiction of George, particularly during the “run on the bank”, the scene that ends Act I. He captured George’s generosity and kindness of spirit when it was called for, and also his desperation and emotional spiraling later in the story. While he’s visibly a little too old to be playing George (making the intimate scenes between him and Mary a smidge awkward), he’s a good choice to lead the production and embodies George’s generosity and his love for his family, friends, and neighbors.  

Other standout acting performances come from Daniel Greer as the villainous Mr. Potter, who played the character with the right balance of depravity and restraint (many Potters I’ve seen err too heavily on the villainous side, making the character cartoony); and Bob Aquila, whose Clarence is sweet but often also boisterous and animated, a refreshing take you don’t often see.

The blemishes of Aurora Players’ IAWL are largely on the technical side, and unfortunately the performance I attended had many. It was plagued with late/early lighting cues, sound effect snafus, and botched scene changes. I would have also liked to see a heartier production design; while the inside of the Bailey house is beautiful (kudos to set decorators/painters John Szablewski and David Hall), the rest of the show largely occurs in front of the black curtain, making long stretches of the show visually bland.

Aurora Player’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t flawless, but it captures the story’s spirit and central themes: that kindness, generosity of spirit, and family are the most important things in life, particularly during the Christmas season.

Aurora Player’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” closed on December 9th. For more information, click here.