WEST ORANGE, NJ — “It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a certifiable Christmas classic since its release in 1946, and it would be no exaggeration to suggest almost everyone has seen the film or one of its numerous adaptations and homages at least once. But the version presented by Luna Stage this holiday season promises to be a new experience even for annual viewers of the original.
“This Wonderful Life,” which runs through Dec. 18, features the iconic story of a suicidal man who realizes his self-worth after being shown what life would be like had he never been born. The pivotal difference between the classic film and this production is that every character — from down-on-his-luck George to kindly angel Clarence to cold-hearted Mr. Potter — is played by a single actress.
And while that may sound like a near-impossible task, Erica Bradshaw knows she is up to the challenge. Yet even she admits her transition between roles is not always seamless.
“Part of the fun of this play is watching me try to keep track of them all, and even watching me when I don’t keep track and I have to say ‘Wait a minute, who am I right now?’” Bradshaw told the West Orange Chronicle in a Dec. 2 phone interview. “We’re not trying to make the audience think I’ve mastered all of these things.”
Bradshaw differentiates between the characters by using distinctive voices for each. Her style of movement also varies depending on the part, with the actress pointing out that women of the 1940s moved rather delicately compared to the men. She is not always responding to herself though, as recorded voices are sometimes used. On top of that, Bradshaw occasionally acts against a mannequin named Carmen, which she joked may not be a living cast member but is one that feels real to her.
Director Daryl Stewart said his own experience as an actor has also come in handy, as he has been able to help Bradshaw characterize each part. Stewart said his biggest job, however, has been to support his star in her very demanding role. He said that means offering encouragement as she learned all the lines, perfected each character and rehearsed the full play. Fortunately, he said, Bradshaw was more than up to the task.
“She’s a wonderful person, she’s hard-working, she’s very passionate, she’s very driven and it’s been a pleasure to be a part of this process with her,” Stewart told the Chronicle in a Dec. 1 phone interview. “She lives up to this role in ways that are both traditional and transgressive. She’s quite a force.”
Stewart said he is eager for audiences to experience Bradshaw’s talent, but he is equally excited for them to see a black actress embody a cast of characters that are usually portrayed by white males. The director said access and representation in all spaces is important to him, so he jumped at the chance when Luna Stage approached him with the idea to do unconventional casting. The world consists of myriad voices, he said, and making sure they are heard should be more than a luxury. It is simply the right thing to do, he said.
“That’s how we learn, that’s how we provoke important conversations, that’s how we grow,” Stewart said. “It’s crucially important, especially today.”
Playing traditionally white male characters is also a meaningful experience for Bradshaw, who said it gives her the opportunity to show the universality of the human experience. Though she is proud to be a black lesbian, the actress said those labels do not define her. In fact, she said she related most to white male characters such as Alex P. Keaton from “Family Ties” and Ricky Stratton from “Silver Spoons” while growing up with the privileges of an upper middle class life during the 1980s.
One’s pigmentation is really a small thing when everyone shares similar personalities, backgrounds and tribulations, she said. That is why she believes casting people based on their race is counterintuitive.
“We have more in common than we have not,” Bradshaw said. “But we focus on our differences so highly. And I think that it’s important in acting to remind people. A great story is a great story, no matter who’s telling it.”
Regardless of one’s color, Bradshaw said people will be able to relate to the themes of “This Wonderful Life.” The actress said she identified with George’s struggles, having gone through some tough times herself. She added that the play’s central message of personal relationships being more valuable than material wealth is something everyone can get behind.
The play shares that message with the original film, though that is not all they have in common. Despite taking an unorthodox approach, Stewart said it was essential to him to preserve the movie’s most iconic moments and lessons. Because while the story may have been produced in the 1940s, he said its themes of doing good by others are just as relevant in 2016.
Above all though, Bradshaw hopes Luna Stage’s production of “This Wonderful Life” does one thing — make people forget their troubles and enjoy themselves.
“For 90 minutes they’ll watch this crazy actor run around the stage and try to interpret this movie through this play,” Bradshaw said. “They’ll have some fun. People who know the movie very well will laugh at certain things. People who’ve never seen the movie before will laugh at different things. And hopefully everybody will go away just feeling highly entertained.”
To purchase tickets for “This Wonderful Life,” visit http://www.lunastage.org/calendar.php?id=226.