Christmas is a challenging time in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life – the iconic guise of Philip Van Doren Stern’s little-known short story The Greatest Gift. In the season of festive cheer, some people are left despondent.
Stern’s tale – a meeting between a suicidal man and a curious stranger in New York on Christmas Eve, 1943 – intriguingly combines mental distress and supernatural elements, resulting in a joyous revelation about the world. Gary Duggan faces up to the same challenges and themes of the original with his new adaptation set in contemporary Ireland.
Inside an empty pub, Georgie (Stephen Kelly) suspiciously dismantles his phone before resuming drinking alone. An eccentric visitor (Gerard Byrne) stumbles in, exhausted from walking up Howth Hill. Duggan’s script, signposted by the colloquial twist in the title, maps local geography from the Hole in the Wall beach in Sutton to the former St Laurence Hotel.
Byrne’s visitor is peculiar, heightened one minute under Duggan’s direction and rested the next. But Kelly shows nice restraint as a man suffocating under debt inherited during the recent recession. Reflecting on his life, his failed career ambitions and his mother’s unfulfilled wishes, he soon regrets ever being born.
That seems like darker fare than usual for Bewley’s Café Theatre, its stage lit by the frosty glow of Colm Maher’s lighting. But where Stern sets the depressed man on a tour of his life, revisiting key moments, Duggan’s version, defiantly realist, mostly suspends supernatural devices. The two individuals stay put in the pub, with the bartender remaining dubiously excused.
How do you get a man of ill mental health to talk about his troubles? Stern’s solution was to stir him with revelatory sights from his past. Duggan’s approach involves a more direct line of questioning.
“Your wife loves you, doesn’t she?” asks Byrne’s stranger, issuing a question he seems to already know the answer to. Georgie readily fills us in on his marriage. “What brought you here?” continues his new acquaintance. Georgie bears all, conveniently enough. But when the truth isn’t hard-fought, it doesn’t make much for muscular drama.
It succeeds, regardless, in providing the greater picture – a chain of fortunate events linked to Georgie’s actions in the past, forcing him to face the importance of his existence. Duggan, no less than Stern, knows that pain can be relieved with some perspective.
It’s a Wonderful bleedin’ Life is on until 21st December 2016 at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre @ Powerscourt, Dublin. Click here for more details.