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'It's a Wonderful Life'

The Christmas classic shows goodness in the face of very hard times

It’s a Wonderful Life gets darkest before the light. Now playing in Lakewood. Photo credit: Tim Johnston

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It's a Wonderful Life's continued, ubiquitous presence is one of the stranger things about the holiday season. Yes, winter is marked by a quiet, almost mournful energy, and it welcomes somber reflection as much as joyful celebration, but come on: It's a Wonderful Life is a movie that literally opens with a man getting ready to kill himself, and then doubles back to show just how much his life is in shambles. In as much as there's a hero's journey, it's in George Bailey realizing that life will never get easier, and he'll spend the rest of his days in the small town that he had always planned on leaving, but at least he has friends. As far as messages go, it's not a bad one, but it takes some time to get anywhere close to something resembling positivity.

What allows It's a Wonderful Life to remain a Christmas favorite is that iconic ending, which does its level best to erase the despair that preceded it, and which Lakewood Playhouse's production nails. That ending is so glowing with upbeat cheeriness that it skips across the waters of cheesiness, but that almost hokey uplift casts a shadow over the rest of the story, contrasting with it so thoroughly that the audience leaves light as a feather, rather than dragged down by the heaviness of life's difficulties.

As produced by Lakewood Playhouse, and directed by Jen York, It's a Wonderful Life is a bullet train that zips through the highs and deep lows of a man's life in roughly 90 minutes. George (Ben Stahl) is a man filled with ambition and idealistic hopes to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls, but is held back when life calls upon him to run the family business. From then on, George's life is on rails, running the Building and Loan, meeting and wedding Mary (the eminently lovable Brittany Griffins), having children, and contending with Mr. Potter (Tom Birkeland), the vile rich man that runs the town. The night George tries to end it all, after his uncle Billy (the wonderfully expressive Jeremy Thompson) loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan's money, Clarence the guardian angel intervenes (Alex J. Koerger).

The ins and outs of what happens next are burned into the American psyche; even if you've somehow lived this long without seeing It's a Wonderful Life, you still know that Clarence guides George through life as he's lived it, and then shows him what would have happened had he never been born. The only real complaint I have about how this adaptation deals with the source material is how it seems to have truncated the time we spend in Pottersville, the alternate universe Bedford Falls, where everyone is worse off in George's absence (that the play is 90 minutes and the film is 130 may explain this).

Stahl does a fine job of evoking George's inherent decency without falling into the trap of trying to imitate Jimmy Stewart, and the large supporting cast populates Bedford Falls with likable characters - save for Birkeland's acidic Mr. Potter. Still, this would all be for nothing if they didn't stick the landing, and I can report that the ending, cheesiness and all, brought tears to my eyes. Its message of the importance of goodness in hard times still resonates.

It's a Wonderful Life, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., through Dec. 18, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW, 253.588.0042,

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