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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Sheboygan cast captures spirit of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Critic At Large

Sheboygan Theatre Company

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WFRV)

Movies are movies, staying the same forever. Plays are rainbows, changing forever.

With the Sheboygan Theatre Company presenting “It’s a Wonderful Life,” based on a beloved movie, a movie becomes a rainbow.

That movie not only goes from its original black-and-white to real-life color, the characters take on new hues.

That last part is especially true of the Sheboygan Theatre Company players in the two main roles, suicidal George Bailey and his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. The players make the roles their own.

Clarence often is portrayed as a calm, mellow follow. This time, Dave Payton makes Clarence a feisty cuss. Early on, Clarence slaps George on the back as if to say, “Come on, shape up. Get a hold of yourself.” Clarence also shouts toward the heavens, kind of complaining about the bureaucracy up there. In ways, Dave Payton makes Clarence seem like a big-city cabbie.

The George Bailey who Myles Coyne creates isn’t so much an aw-shucks person but someone who knows what he wants. Speaking rapid-fire in the manner of a go-getter, his brain seems connected to his tongue.

The role of Mary Hatch/Mary Bailey offers less wiggle room. Nice is nice. Mary Luke is true-to-course sweetness and light in her warm portrayal.

The story: Facing financial ruin and possibly prison, a man who has helped town folk to live their dream in owning homes and businesses wishes he were never born. At the last possible moment, an almost-angel from on high comes into his life, which is then seen in flashbacks.

What the entire cast does, at the guiding hand of guest director Sarah Jane Schostack, is exude an aura of really wanting to be part of a story that means so much to so many people at this time of year. They want to the supportive spouse, the pharmacist whose neck is saved by a kid, the bungling uncle and all the other folks of little-world-in-a-big-world Bedford Falls.

At the bows Sunday afternoon in Leslie W. Johnson Theatre of Horace Mann Middle School, all that could be read on the faces of the players. Mean ol’ Mr. Potter (Brian Prestley) still was in his mean ol’ guise until a little boy from the cast climbed aboard his wheelchair; suddenly steadfast mean ol’ Mr. Potter was kindly.

Use of performance space is always interesting for Sheboygan Theatre Company. This time, the proscenium stage area serves as Bedford Falls building facades (executed without much finesse) while a circular rise in the half-circle area is the main acting space; set pieces are rolled in and out. The floor and rise walls are gray.

The story from the movie is abbreviated. There is no falling into a swimming pool in this production.

Sunday afternoon’s audience was absorbed by the story, listening and watching and letting episodes unfold without applause until the end of acts. I have written in recent weeks about the power of silence in audiences, and this is another example.

Also stepping back a bit in another way, “It’s a Wonderful Life” with time has gone from a representation of the present (around the Great Depression and World War II) to something historic. The story is still the glue, but stuff in it is of the past now. One example: A mover and shaker tells of a new thing – plastics from soy beans – that will be “the biggest thing since radio.” Radio was the thing at the time of the original story/movie. Television essentially did not exist. No cable. No internet. No cell phones. In the play, a long-distance phone call is a big deal, partly because of the cost for long-distance charges.

People, however, are still people. The cast dons the guises of the amoral miser, the understanding cop, the easy girl, the ramrod stiff bank inspector, the well-meaning moms and Christmas-loving kids. With George (Myles Coyne), (Clarence) Dave Payton and Mary (Mary Luke) at the fore, eagerness to tell the tale comes through.

Four performances remain.

***

Creative: Playwright – James W. Rodgers, adapting from 1946 Frank Capra film and story by Philip Van Doren Stern; director – Sarah Jane Schostack; production stage manager – Jack Blindauer; assistant stage manager – Alexandra Blindauer; set design – Nan Gibson; costume designers – Beth Wynveen, Jamie Wynveen; lighting designer – Lisa Stewart; sound designer – Jeff Wakefield; properties crew chief – Nan Gibson; hair/make-up designer – Candice LaPoint; executive director – Jackie Blindauer

Cast:

George Bailey – Myles Coyne

Clarence Odbody – Dave Payton

Mr. Gower/Mr. Welch – Eric Johnson

Young George/Newspaper Boy – Joseph Becker

Harry Bailey – Maxim Heinen

Mother Bailey – Kim Koeppen

Aunt Tilly – Elizabeth Ann Jaeger

Violet Peterson – Elizabeth Plotka-Heinen

Bert – Duncan Doherty

Ernie – Adam Norlander

Uncle Billy – Bob Deyo

Mary Hatch – Mary Luke

Henry F. Potter – Brian Prestley

Mr. Potter’s Goon – Clark R. Kirst

Mr. Potter’s Secretary – Robert Weber

Mrs. Hatch/Mrs. Martin/Mrs. Thompson – Bobbie Norlander

Sam Wainwright/Mr. Martini – Tim Kaufmann

Miss Andrews – Erin Koeppen

Miss Carter – Corrine M. Schultz

Pete Bailey – Johnathan Becker

Tommy Bailey – Seth Peyton

Zuzu Bailey – Brooklyn Peyton

Janie Bailey – Isabella Schmitz

Running time: One hour, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11-14

Info: stcshows.org

***

NEXT: “The Nerd” by Larry Shue, Feb. 21-23, 26-29.

THE VENUE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre in Horace Mann Middle School is a one-of-a-kind theater space for Northeastern Wisconsin. Its layout creates special demands that can lead to rewards in unique theatergoing. The spacious facility is in the shape of an amphitheater with steep stairways. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium (flat front) stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. The school was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.

THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a Sheboygan superintendent of schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.

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