Third Avenue Playhouse presents ‘This Wonderful Life’

Actor Stephen Pearce performs ‘This Wonderful Life,’ playing each and every character from the popular 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Photo by Len Villano.

The famous 1946 Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life – which tells the story of George Bailey, a middle-aged husband and father who has given up dreams to help others and finds himself in serious trouble – means something different to everyone, believes actor Stephen Pearce. When the “air force brat,” as he calls himself, first encountered the film as a young boy he was enthralled with Clarence, the angel who comes into George’s life as he contemplates ending his life.

“It was ‘The Story of Clarence the Angel,’ that’s what I thought of it as,” recalls Pearce. “But when I watched it later in life I realized it’s not about Clarence, he’s only in it for about 20 minutes.”

The actor, who Door County audiences may be familiar with from a few Door Shakespeare productions, will take on the role of Clarence for Third Avenue Playhouse’s production of This Wonderful Life – he will also play “George, Mr. Potter, Mary, Zuzu, I play them all,” he says.

For 90 minutes Pearce will act out the entire story of It’s a Wonderful Life on a sparse stage. “There is a suggestion of a staircase, a suggestion of a front porch, and a desk – this great old table – that is the building and loan office.” There are no costume changes, so Pearce must switch into more than 30 characters with sometimes little more than a change of voice. “All these characters I have to make the audience familiar with using a gesture or even just a change of face,” he says. “I’ve had to get in shape too,” he adds, laughing. “I go from doing the Charleston and two minutes later singing ‘Buffalo Gals,’ I can’t be huffing and puffing.”

Audience members who are familiar with the film will recognize lines and scenes, “90 percent of the play is the screenplay,” says Minneapolis-based Pearce, who studied the script for more than a month before heading to Sturgeon Bay. “It’s not a parody, it’s an homage to It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though he does admit that because he plays every character – male and female, young and old – there are comedic elements the film lacks.

One of Pearce’s greatest challenges comes from a new character in the play, the narrator. “The narrator fills in gaps that you just couldn’t do on stage. He’s essentially me, but I don’t want to make it jarring when he comes out and explains things. I’m trying to seamlessly weave him into the play.”

Playing George is also a great challenge, admits Pearce. “He’s everyman. He’s quintessential middle-class American. And who hasn’t felt that kind of despair in life? It’s a classic story and it’s dark, but Christmas is dark for a lot of people.”

Pearce remembers how the film has changed for him over the years, depending on where he was in life. “It’s different for kids, for adults, and older folks as well,” he says. “It’s disturbing as a kid when George is shaking Mary, when they’re on the phone. You don’t understand what’s happening at the time, but you know it’s serious, and it’s still disturbing later in life, but you realize he doesn’t want to love her because it means giving up his travel dreams.”

Pearce believes all ages can take something away from the show – even those who “think they don’t like It’s a Wonderful Life,” he says. “There are two kinds of people who don’t like it: those who are like, ‘It’s so mainstream, it’s fluffy,’ and the others who are like, ‘It’s so dark.’” He maintains that it’s something everyone can relate to, and that’s why the story has stood the test of time.

“It’s an intense story,” says Pearce. “I feel like I’ve gone through so much at the end of each run-through – I have to just sit alone and decompress. But it’s a joy to do.”

Third Avenue Playhouse will present This Wonderful Life through Dec. 29. Tickets are $22 for adults, $10 for students, and $5 for children. For more information, show times and to purchase tickets call 920.743.1760, visit, or stop by the box office, located at 239 N Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay.