Popular wisdom holds that one can’t be everything to everyone.
Don’t tell that to actor James Leaming, who embodies George Bailey, the main character, and everyone else in the Laguna Playhouse production of “This Wonderful Life.” The one-man Steve Murray stage play is based on the iconic holiday film, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
With no stage make-up and wearing a slightly rumpled three-piece suit, Leaming segues from kind-hearted but progressively world-weary Bailey into his nemesis, the snarling slumlord Mr. Potter, his wife Mary, his attention-craving kids, a booze-addled pharmacist, high school classmates and Clarence, the journeyman angel one good deed shy of earning his wings.
“The number of characters is now up to 47,” Leaming said. Empathy with each helps him keep them straight.
Before going on stage, Leaming mingles in the lobby, trying to get a sense of his audience. Before shifting into character and events preceding Christmas Eve in fictional Bedford Falls, Leaming asks who has seen the 1946 movie (most have) and adds Laguna specific snippets to his on stage narration.
Director Peter Amster and Leaming streamlined playwright Murray’s script and designed a minimalist stage set. Gone are the porch and the bridge that George, driven by money woes, wants to jump off. They are replaced by rolling stairs standing in for the staircase in Bailey’s house as well as the overpass. A small desk for Potter, a rectangular frame suggesting a doorway, neon signs and an easel bearing legends such as “Christmas tree” for a sense of locale fill out the set.
“We stuck carefully to the script but made minor alterations by cutting some lines and adding one from the movie to establish an emotional connection,” said Amster. “We wanted to go right to the heart of each character and tell the story from the point of the truth of who those people really are,” he said. “Working together, we were like two kids playing in a sandbox.”
Over the past three years, Amster and Leaming staged the show in Sarasota, Fla., Syracuse, N.Y., and Cleveland. Leaming also plays Bailey in American Blues Theatre productions of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He founded the Chicago-based troupe to bring classic, grass-roots and experimental theater to diverse city audiences.
No one would guess that Leaming, 55, might have been destined for this role. “My sister had a crush on Jimmy Stewart (the film’s original George Bailey) and she convinced my mother to name me after him. But then, my father had to get his favorite apostle in there, too, and I became James Mark Leaming,” he explained.
Premonitory name aside, acting was not his first ambition. In high school, Leaming was a star athlete excelling in several sports. He enrolled in pre-med courses at Nebraska Wesleyan University. A friend who asked him to participate in a studio theater production changed that. “I had found my calling and never looked back,” he said. He went on to study at San Francisco’s prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. “I had found my light,” he said, explaining that good actors know instinctively where the stage is best lit and gravitate towards it.
The youngest of four, Leaming was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to an American Army chaplain and a nurse. “Moving around with my family I adapted early to a nomadic life and I still love to travel,” said Leaming, who has lived in Colorado, New Mexico and California and now resides in Chicago.
He traces a part of his lineage to the Catawba Indian Nation and practices a Native American ritual prior to shows. “I bless the theater I am in by burning sage and sweet grass and say a prayer,” he said, adding that a medicine woman presided over his wedding to fellow thespian Carmen Roman. He has also studied world religions including Buddhism and Judaism’s Cabala. “We were raised to be open minded. My father kept reminding us that we’re all in this together,” he explained.
The protagonist Leaming embodies radiates an affection for humanity that instills itself within the confines of the theater, the show’s director said. As audiences inevitably come to their feet at the play’s conclusion, a sense of unity remains after the ovation ends.
“The play is really not about Christmas, but about human resiliency in the face of difficult times,” said Leaming.
To echo artistic director Ann E. Wareham’s stagebill note, Leaming’s work is an unwrapped gift the Playhouse is sharing through Dec. 24.