Two holiday offerings at theaters in Gilroy and Morgan Hill provide fitting bookends to the idea that individuals can have unimaginable and unpredictable influence in others’ lives.
That holiday chestnut, Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” adapted for the stage by James W. Rodgers, gets a straightforward treatment at South Valley Civic Theater, with Seph McCarty and Audrey Del Prete effectively channeling Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the story of George Bailey, who on Christmas Eve is facing humiliation after a catastrophic error at his family’s Building and Loan firm. As he’s about to leap off a bridge into an icy river, his guardian angel stops him and shows how his life has been, after all, a wonderful one.
Down Monterey Road a few miles, Limelight Actors Theater at the Gilroy Center for the Arts explores family dynamics in a comedy that has everyone in tears at the end, “Mom’s Gift” by Phil Olsen, in which the family matriarch appears as a ghost to her daughter at a birthday party with a mission to right some family misunderstanding — she’s not sure which — before she can move from Limbo into Heaven — in a sense, earn her wings.
Of the two productions, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” directed by Carol Harris, offers a traditional telling of George Bailey’s story, tightened up some from the film, which can feel a little endless when interrupted by commercials on TV. The stage version clocks in at under two hours through some judicious excising of scenes from the movie, which also has the side effect of siphoning off some juice from it. The distance of the audience from the actors, alas, makes one of the film’s best scenes, where after an erotically charged shared phone call with Mary’s other beau, George furiously declares that he doesn’t intend to stick around Bedford Falls, nor work for the Building and Loan, nor marry Mary, only to pull her into a passionate kiss, go a little flat. It’s better in closeup.
Still, Scott Lynch, who played George Bailey a decade ago when SVCT last presented the show, does a fine job as the angel Clarence, James Dan Pearson is simply a hoot as the gleefully evil banker Potter, and Ainsley Keslin vamps her away around nicely as Violet Peterson.
“Mom’s Gift,” on the other hand, draws together a terrific cast at a birthday party for Dad (Bill Tindall), less than a year after the death of Mom (Christy Wait). Daughter Kat (Denee Lewis) is there under court order as part of an anger management sentence after she’s shoved a police officer; younger daughter Brittney (Angie Higgins) is a directionless waitress at Hooters who’s clearly the apple of her father’s eye. Trish (Myra Kaelin), who was Mom’s caregiver after a car accident involving a drunk driver destroyed her health, has developed a warm friendship with Dad that appears to be blossoming into more, while neighbor Kevin (Tom Shamrell) has a longstanding crush on the successful, highly-educated Kat.
Mom appears as a ghost that only Kat can see and hear as she tries to determine which relationship she needs to heal in order to earn her wings.
There’s plenty of misunderstanding to go around, a lot of it handled through zingers delivered from one family member to another with terrific comic timing. A plot twist that no one sees coming moves the show from the typical family dramedy to one that has the entire cast (and audience) weeping by the time the curtain falls.
The cast, sensitively directed by Kevin Heath, seems to inhabit each character so effortlessly that the overall effect is one of thorough realism. Not one appears to be “acting;” instead, they are simply living the story being told.
It’s worth seeing both these shows, with bells on.
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” through Dec. 8 at South Valley Civic Theatre, Morgan Hill. svct.org; 408.842.7469. “Mom’s Gift,” through Dec. 8 at Limelight Actors Theater, Gilroy. limelightactorstheater.com; 408.472.3292.