By Sue White | For MLive.com
SAGINAW, MI – When "It's a Wonderful Life" hit the theaters in 1946, audiences didn't immediately take to Frank Capra's tale of a small-town banker's life-changing redemption, calling it "sentimental."
"Some people still feel that way," says Jessica McFarland, who's directing the Pit and Balcony Community Theatre's production of the now-classic play.
But going back to the original script, a compilation of three different versions, she's balancing the story of redemption with its underlying current of personal turmoil, in many ways familiar to Saginaw's own young population.
"It's a Wonderful Life" opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, and continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and Friday and Saturday, Dec. 11 and 12, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 and 13, at the theater at 805 N. Hamilton. Tickets, available at the box office, by calling 989-754-6587 and online at pitandbalconytheatre.com, cost $20.
"The play is set in a period spanning from 1915 into the 1940s, but it's not unlike the dark times we've dealt with in recent years," McFarland said. "We have young people like George Bailey, too, who want more than anything to leave town and make something of themselves in the big world."
Bailey, who dreams of becoming a famous architect, instead uses his honeymoon money to help his bank's customers weather the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. But when the money-grubbing Mr. Potter uses an unfortunate turn of events to sink Bailey's enterprise a few years later, Bailey spends Christmas Eve convinced the world would be a better place without him.
But when a guardian angel, named Clarice in the Pit and Balcony's version and performed by Diamond Magee, shows him what becomes of his beloved Bedford Falls, he finds the strength to fight back.
Despite its plunge into depression and suicide, "It's a Wonderful Life" also offers a positive message to today's audience, McFarland added. You are important to your community and because you are still here, making a difference, life is better for all.
"I have a cast ranging from 9 years old into seniors, from actors new to Pit and Balcony to theater veterans like David and Audrey Lewis, and they understand," McFarland said. "We have people you wouldn't expect doing things they wouldn't normally do. It's been exciting to see it all come together."
McFarland's vision isn't lost on Chad William Baker of Flint, who has the unenviable task of taking on the role of George Bailey defined by the iconic Jimmy Stewart.
"There's a note on the script that says you shouldn't worry about imitating Jimmy Stewart," Baker said. "I've always loved that movie for the happier, familiar story it tells. But now that I'm older, I realize what he was going through and how much he meant to the town.
"There's a scene where Uncle Billy asks him what he wants to do with his life and George says he wants to do something important. Then he realizes in the course of events that he is important by just being there and having an impact."
Baker said he could relate to that on a personal level, "and I was struck by what a very real, down-to-earth person George Bailey really is. He takes the good with the bad."
He also sees in Mr. Potter, portrayed by Kevin Kendrick of Midland, a realistic reflection of people who simply don't care.
"He's just out for himself," Baker said. "We all know people like that."
It was his love of the movie, one he calls uplifting and positive, that drew Kendrick, a veteran of the Midland community theater scene, to Pit and Balcony for the first time.
"It's a story you don't forget, even if you haven't seen it for years," he said of Capra's classic. "It's very black and white when it comes to Mr. Potter, too. He has no redeeming qualities; even when you think for a moment when George tells him he misplaced $8,000 that he show a better side, he instead asks George if he's notified the police."
While Kendrick, vice-president of global security at Dow Corning, is generally known as a sweet and gentle man, he draws on his years as an FBI agent in bringing depth to a string of villainous roles.
"I've investigated people like Mr. Potter and I take it as a personal challenge to use my experience with the evil underside to fully capture the character."
Lionel Barrymore did it so well in the movie, he added, "that when I saw him in later films, I couldn't disassociate him from the evil man he was in 'It's a Wonderful Life.'
"This has really given me a greater appreciation of the story's undercurrent; it's much more stark and in your face on stage. Even in this day and age, we have so much badness in the world. But especially this time of the year, we need the hopeful message, realizing there are people who help people and put our world on a level plane."
"It's a Wonderful Life" still has everyone's favorite scenes, McFarland said. And the darker moments only serve to further help audiences appreciate the redemptive spirit of human compassion.
"It's always been one of my holiday favorites," she said. "And it's still very relevant today."
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