Olena Hodges plays the character, Violet, and Gabe Harshman is George Bailey in the WICA play, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Patricia Guthrie

Olena Hodges plays the character, Violet, and Gabe Harshman is George Bailey in the WICA play, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo by Patricia Guthrie

WICA brings holiday classic to stage

  • Wednesday, December 11, 2019 10:41am
  • Life

By Patricia Guthrie

Special to The Record

Could there be a more picture-perfect venue to bring to life the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” than a stage in Langley on the Isle of Whidbey?

Find out at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts where the production runs through Dec. 21.

Be prepared, though, for some tugging of your heart and soul.

Because no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie or heard the dashed dream dialogue of Everyman George Bailey, it still delivers a poignant punch.

That’s the beauty of the story, say husband-and-wife dynamic directing duo, David Ossman and Judith Walcutt.

“The original script is just fine, heartwarming, romantic, funny, and best of all, the story sits perched on the bridge between heaven and earth, fantasy and reality, life and death,” Ossman and Walcutt write in the play’s program notes.

Ossman is a radio improv master, most known for performing with Firesign Theatre, the popular folk-hip troupe of the ’60s and ’70s. Walcutt’s storied public radio career includes writing, directing and producing award-winning anniversary tributes, including “The War of the Worlds” and “We Hold These Truths,” a bicentennial celebration of the Bill of Rights.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” marks their return to the WICA stage after nearly a decade’s absence.

“It’s good to be back,” Walcutt said.

The play follows the original movie script which began as a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” by novelist and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren Stern. Rejected by publishers, Stern turned the heart-tugging tale into a Christmas pamphlet he sent to friends.

It eventually ended up in the hands of director Frank Capra. The movie debuted in 1946 to lukewarm reviews despite starring the era’s beloved stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

Then, annual (non-stop) showings of the black-and-white movie on television catapulted the film into Hollywood history and holiday tradition.

Longtime South Whidbey creative collaborators, Woodruff and Ossman, purposefully kept the set simple with a looming bridge and rising moon as backdrop.

A dozen microphones stand at the ready on stage where actors come and go to deliver lines and give the audience an up-close encounter with the play’s large 48-member cast.

It works particularly well when Gabe Harshman and Amy Walker take center stage.

Harshman plays George Bailey solidly in his own skin and voice, giving no reason to compare him to legendary actor Jimmy Stewart.

On the other hand, Amy Walker, a woman of many accents, is Donna Reed, delivering Mrs. Bailey’s lines in the soothing, spot-on, reassuring voice of Reed.

A professional actor and singer living in Los Angeles who honed her skills growing up on South Whidbey, Walker’s litany of 21 accents became a YouTube sensation a few years back.

Many other familiar faces of the South Whidbey stage appear, including Jim Carroll as Ernie the friendly cop, Jameson Cook as Harry Bailey, Martha Murphy as Mrs. Hatch and Olena Hodges as Violet.

Several youngsters make their big-show debut, including Lucas Pitts, Victoria Saenz and Lila Sousa, as the Bailey children.

Turning “It’s a Wonderful Life” into a musical has been the path of community theaters elsewhere. It’s also the direction of an upcoming Broadway show conceived by Paul McCartney.

But jazzing up the storyline with song and dance isn’t necessary.

Fake snow, however, is.

Bedford Falls, N.Y., the fictional “Wonderful Life” small town, was actually a six-block set built on the RKO Ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley.

Ossman and Walcutt said they couldn’t say no to the idea of reconfiguring the classic film for community theater when Deanna Duncan, WICA’s artistic director, approached them with the idea.

It seemed a natural fit, Walcutt said.

South Whidbey residents espouse a generous and care-for-thy-neighbor spirit, just like Bedford Falls’ folk, and the “Village by the Sea’ looks, sounds and feels like the movie town.

And then there’s Clarence, the sweet, bumbling angel trying to earn his wings who swoops down to save George Bailey.

Not many real towns have a real Clarence.

But Langley does. His name is Jim Scullin, a snowy-haired, friendly-faced regular of South Whidbey community theater the past 20 years.

“Not only does he look like Clarence, he is Clarence,” Walcutt said. “If you know Jim Scullin at all, you know he is Clarence.”

WICA presents “It’s a Wonderful Life” through Dec. 21. Karolyn Grimes, who played young ZuZu in the movie appears at a special talk Friday, Dec. 20 at 11 a.m. See WICAonline.org or call 360-221-8268 for more information.

Scullin seems to have come down from the heavens to portray Clarence, the angel in need of wings.

Scullin seems to have come down from the heavens to portray Clarence, the angel in need of wings.