My family decided I was a horrible misfit when I was 9 or 10 and failed to give "It's a Wonderful Life" fawning praise.

"It was stupid," I said in my prepuberty squeak, not yet realizing that the dictionary was flooded with words such as hokey, fawning, cloying, smarmy and schmaltzy.

"It was Jimmy Stewart," my father said in a voice that let me know I had offended a family saint and wouldn't be getting a good seat at Christmas dinner.

And so began my relationship with "Wonderful Life," which ranged from stormy -- when I told friends I would rather have a root canal than see the movie -- to quiet, when I went entire Christmas seasons without mentioning that the picture wasn't even close to my Yuletide Top 10 list (I'm a "White Christmas" man, so you know I can stand a certain amount of hoke).

That said, you can understand I was not happy as a redeemed Scrooge when my editor said I should review "It's a Wonderful Life" at Town Hall Theatre. But after hearing him remark that writing stuff was how I earned my pay, it sounded like a wonderful idea.

I showed up only minutes before the curtain, trying to avoid friends in the lobby and knowing that in not too much time, I would be at my keyboard doing the journalistic equivalent of kicking a kitten.

Then the show started.

Within seconds, I was captivated, quickly learning the lesson that, while schmaltz tends not to work in movies, it comes on like gangbusters on stage (particularly in an intimate theater like Town Hall).

The charming innocence of George Bailey (Dan Saski) comes through beautifully as we see, in flashback, how a genuinely good man can be led to suicide when life, and the wealthy town villain, Henry Potter (Randy Anger), turn against him.

And, bang, I'm hooked like a carp.

Actually, two factors made the production work so well from the start. First, director Lisa Anne Porter used scenic designer Martin Flynn's simple but visually delightful set to its maximum. Second was the work of the actors, particularly the principals, Saski and Anger, along with Lauren Rosi, who played Mary, George's long-suffering wife, and Tom Flynn, who looks like he was born to play Clarence, the apprentice angel who leads George back from the brink by making him realize that he is a very valuable member of his hometown, Bedford Falls.

Flynn, by the way, not only looks like Clarence, but gives him a delightful characterization that makes us hope not only for George's salvation but for the bell to ring, marking Clarence's promotion to angel first class.

Appearance has been considered in casting all of the actors, who are aided significantly by the costumes designed by Maggi Yule, as well as Sarah Spero's props. Lighting (Chris Guptill) and sound (Nico Brenni) also play an important part in creating the feel of the show.

But it's Porter who should get much of the credit for the living picture she creates with the show. From the start, when most of the actors are seated on stage with their backs to the audience, the show has an "Our Town" feel to it.

This not only makes the minimalistic set work well, but sets the tone for the wonderful life in Bedford Falls. It works so well that even the two town cops, Bert (Greg Dutson) and Ernie (Bill McLave), don't break the spell when they are introduced by name.

So there you have it. I'm a convert who now recommends the stage version of "It's a Wonderful Life" as an excellent addition to the list of Christmas plays that are so much a part of the holidays.

'IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE'

Adapted from the 1946 Frank Capra film by James W. Rodgers; presented by Town Hall Theatre Company.

Through: Dec. 16
Where: Town Hall Theatre, 3535 School St., Lafayette
Running time: 1 hour,
40 minutes
Tickets: $12-$32; 925-283-1557, www.townhalltheatre.com