WAKEFIELD, R.I. — “It’s A Wonderful Life” at The Prout School as the Prout Theatre Company puts their spin on the classic tale of George Bailey, the Everyman from Bedford Falls in crisis on Christmas Eve who learns the true value his life has when his guardian angel shows him how worse off the world would be without him in it, this Friday and Saturday night for their annual winter show.
For Director Vivian K. Humphrey, the play, which is based on the 1946 movie of the same name (itself based off of the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern), fit in with this year’s overlying theme of magic, following their fall performance of “Matilda” and this spring’s upcoming musical “Brigadoon.”
“(For the winter show) I needed need to have some magicalness to it and certainly the angel coming down and being able to pretend he didn’t exist certainly is a bit of magic, but in doing so, we’ve kind of realized that it’s not about magic (in) all three of these shows, it’s about faith,” Humphrey said. “Faith in ourselves, faith in our fellow man and so that’s been a real interesting thing and good thing to explore.”
Humphrey said she had considered plays with similar themes such as “Our Town,” but wanted to go with something with a more uplifting message.
“It’s such a heartwarming story even though it has sort of a dark undertone, but it all ends well and in February we can all use a little bit of that,” Humphrey said.
While the story is known as a holiday classic, Humphrey believes the message behind the story resonates far beyond Christmas time.
“It starts and ends on Christmas Eve, but the rest of it takes place throughout his whole life and the theme is one man or woman affects so many others more than you realize and all of these people worried about him because he worried about them their whole lives, so it’s about taking care of one another and we do what we need to, to take care of one another,” Humphrey said.
Prout’s performance of “It’s A Wonderful Life” is supported by a cast of 45 and crew of 20, all bringing with them a mix of different experience levels.
“They’re great,” Humphrey said. “I’ve got some really experienced actors and some kids who are new. I’ve got kids who have taken my acting classes here at school and had never done a play after school but wanted to give it a shot once they got their feet wet in class and in the winter I get lucky that a lot of our athletes that do fall sports or spring sports are available and want to do something on stage.”
That mix of experience is evident between two of the main leads in the show, with the main character of George Bailey being played by senior Sam Eaton in his ninth performance at the school while junior Olivia Barber tackles the role of his wife, Mary Hatch, in her first performance at Prout.
“This is my first show that I’ve done at Prout and everyone here has made me feel so welcome and everyone’s helped me,” Barber said. “It was definitely a little daunting at first. I was definitely scared. I didn’t have many friends coming in (but) I’ve met so many amazing people in the whole process of the production itself and it’s super exciting and I’m so excited for opening night.”
Barber says it’s been “super fun” to bring the character of Mary Hatch to life on stage and draws on inspiration from her own life to play her.
“Mary herself is a very wholesome, light-hearted (character),” Barber said. “She appreciates life, she appreciates her family and her friends, so I’ve really tried to bring aspects of my life because I’m very outgoing, I love being around my family and my friends and I’m trying to bring those aspects of my life into this character (and) really bring out the great person that she is.”
Despite it being her first role, Humphrey says Barber is a natural.
“She’s taken three classes with me and every time she’s just impressed me so much, so I’ve been sort of lobbying (her to audition) like ‘Please Olivia, you’re so good’ and she brings such a natural charm to the role of Mary Hatch,” Humprhey said. “Mary is (George Bailey’s) heart. He overthinks, but she knows she loves him right from the beginning and she’s the one who saves the day in terms of getting all the help, so I needed someone who had the intelligence of Mary, the sweetness of Mary and the heart, so I got lucky (with Barber).”
For Eaton, taking on the character of George Bailey made famous by the legendary actor Jimmy Stewart is an honor.
“It’s awesome because he’s such an iconic movie character and everyone loves him, so it’s just an honor to play him on the stage so people can see,” Eaton said.
While he takes inspiration from Stewart’s performance, Eaton looks to bring his own spin to the role of the beloved everyman.
He says that while there are some differences between the play and the movie, the story and message both hold the same power and message and he’s excited to show audiences what him and the rest of the cast and crew bring to life.
“I’m excited for them to see the classic story that they know but a little bit more evolved and all these (actors) that they know as people not in character that they can really bring these amazing characters to life,” Eaton said.
Playing Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence Odbody is another first time performer in senior Jon Cowger, who’s tasked with being the happy, optimistic foil to the pessimistic and downtrodden Bailey.
“He’s like a light, happy, spirited person who’s trying to cheer up George who’s obviously been through a lot and he’s thinking about suicide, so it’s really my job to show George what a great life he has and why suicide’s just never really the answer,” Cowger said. “I’m trying to bring a (sense of) happiness (to the role), an always looking on the bright side, never letting anything bring me down (approach). Whatever negative thing (George) says, I combat it with something more positive and cheer him up. I’m really like a flat character, I don’t have a mean or dark side at all.”
Being able to relate to the role is key, something which senior and Prout Theatre Company Co-Representative Hadley Bansal feels with her role as Mother Bailey, George’s mother.
“I think I can definitely relate to the role because I feel like I’m kind of the mom of my friend group, so I feel like it’s kind of a natural role for me,” Bansal, who’s participated in all Prout Theatre performances since her freshman year said.
While many of the cast play close friends and family members of one another’s characters on stage, off stage those feelings and relationships remain.
“I love them so much, they’re like my family,” Bansal said. “I’ve been doing this ever since I was in third grade, so I think whatever show I do, whatever play I do, my cast mates turn into my friends and family.”
“They’re fabulous, they’re totally amazing,” Eaton said of the cast and crew. “I’m blessed to work with them every day.”
As for takeaways, much of the cast agrees that the overlying theme is that no matter the circumstance, life is worth living and the people who love you are better off with you in their life.
“I don’t want to say it’s just an anti-suicide (message), but it really does show you that life is good and life is wonderful and you should never want to ever get rid of it and there’s always a bright side,” Cowger said.
“You definitely understand the importance of friends and family and the importance of life itself and I think that the cast and crew do a great job of portraying that theme,” Barber said. “It’s a Christmas classic, but as it’s not Christmas right now we’re really trying to push that theme of friends, family and how awesome life is.”
For Humphrey, she hopes the audience leaves happy and optimistic.
“I picture the audience leaving with a little smile on their face,” Humprhey said. “Just like when you watch the movie at Christmas time, your heart warmed and I feel like you’ll get that with this, especially the beautiful tableau at the end with (George Bailey) and (his daughter) Zuzu and Mary and all of his friends and family around him at Christmas, so it is a heartwarming story and I want people to leave with a sweet smile on their face.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life” will run at The Prout School on Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. Tickets are $8 for students and seniors and $10 for adults and can be purchased online at prouttheatre.com.