James Leaming in "This Wonderful Life" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.
James Leaming in “This Wonderful Life” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.

By Pat Launer

Bedford Falls has moved to Solana Beach.

That tiny, snowbound town where Frank Capra’s 1946 perennial, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” took place, has settled into North Coast Repertory Theatre for a spell, so consummate and compelling actor James Leaming can spin the tale singlehandedly.

In a friendly, casual way, he introduces us to — and portrays — some 30 characters, from the good-hearted, ill-fated George Bailey (sometimes sounding just like the stammering Jimmy Stewart, sometimes not); his loving wife Mary and their four kids, including little Zuzu; the absent-minded inebriate, Uncle Billy; the dastardly Mr. Potter; and George’s bumbling, wingless guardian angel, Clarence.

George has been disappointed all his life, repeatedly having to postpone his dreams of adventure. All he ever wanted was to get out of Bedford Falls, but he stays, selflessly taking over his father’s Building & Loan. When Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 in cash, and the bank inspector is on the way, George sees no alternative but to end it all. Clarence finds him on the bridge, just about to jump into the river. The rest is movie-going history.

There have been many stage adaptations (for years, Cygnet Theatre did a radio play, just as the original movie stars had done on Lux Radio Theatre), but this version’s unique in its own way, with one skillful actor doing it all (including sound effects). Since 2008, Leaming has performed the piece in several cities around the country; this is its San Diego premiere.

Under the astute direction of Carmen Roman (the amusing and heartfelt text is by Steve Murray), Leaming keeps us thoroughly engaged for 75 minutes, making sly references to other classics (one Bedford Falls resident, he tells us, looks like Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals”; a prom inadvertently turned swimming pool party resembles the one in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — well, sort of, minus the sex part).

The scenery (Marty Burnett), props (Benjamin Cole), lighting (Aaron Rumley) and sound (original design by Kevin Kennedy) are excellent, all enormously enhanced by the superlative video design of Joe Huppert, which manages to cinematically pan and zoom in on the various locales. Quite convincingly, the snow falls gently, then whips up into a blizzard; the river rages, the cobwebbed old house haunts. Magical.

There’s plenty of humor here, and if the show isn’t a tear-jerker like the movie, it does remind us that, with our myriad connections and interdependencies, the world would be a very different place if we weren’t in it.

Nasty old megalomaniacal Potter (at one point, George calls him a “toad-faced, toilet-breath, booger-eating bastard”) may never get his comeuppance, but he’s metaphorically squelched by the ripple-effect of George’s unrelenting goodness and kindness.

The first moments of the production are a bona fide tour de force: Leaming dexterously presents a neck-snapping, rapid-fire, condensed version of the entire story in less than a minute.

At a time of year when it’s easy to be dragged down by the weather, the family, or the holidays, this timeless parable forces you to re-consider your own worth, value and blessings.

  • “This Wonderful Life” runs through December 28, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., in Solana Beach
  • Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Running Time: 75 min.
  • Tickets ($37-40) are at 858-481-1055 or online at www.northcoastrep.org

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.