It takes an enormous amount of talent and a great deal of self-confidence for an actor to take on a one-person performance portraying many characters. Actor James Leaming seems to have both, receiving many accolades for tackling 32 characters in his one-man “This Wonderful Life,” making its San Diego premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, Dec. 10-28.
Leaming is a well-trained actor who has performed in regional theater for years. His company, American Blues Theater, produced a radio version of the play written by Joe Landry, where Leaming played George Bailey, made famous by Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“The solo version is written by Steve Murray,” Leaming said. “His version really preserves the heart of the story. It was originally conceived by Mark Setlock and adapted by Murray.”
The play has been done many times, often with a lot of props, but Leaming uses minimal. He said he knows staging and what will make specific moments stand out.
“I learned from radio plays that an audience’s imagination is much more powerful than anything I could bring onto the stage,” he said. “I’ve paired the show down to essential elements. I do my own sound effects, and because North Coast Rep’s stage is slightly smaller than most, it will be a very interesting re-imagining. It’s always different, we never do the same show we did somewhere else. We do a show that comes alive in the new space.”
Leaming’s wife, Carmen Roman, is directing, and his friend, Joe Huppert, who sometimes works at La Jolla Playhouse, will be adding new elements with visual projections.
“There’s a lot of fun and simplicity to this show,” Leaming said. “From my point of view, it feels like we’re walking through the story together, and because I’m the narrator, sometimes I’ll depart from being a character to converse with the audience describing places or situations.
“The heart of this adaptation is really right on, and it’s not a cold impersonation of people, it’s the spirit of them … for me, that’s the joy of telling their story … like the character, Mary, she’s strong and powerful.”
The tale surely appeals to both young and mature audiences as it captures the heart of Americana. This production is sure to entertain and maybe reveal something new in its delivery.
“It’s a love affair with the movie,” said Leaming, “And if I’ve done it correctly, the first thing one is going to want to do afterward, is go watch the film again.”