FINDING THE WONDERFUL
BY JANET ALLEN, MARGOT LACY ECCLES ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Our platform for making art at the IRT has changed enormously in the past few months. Battling our way through COVID protocol and safety concerns sometimes seems like only the tip of the iceberg. We have an immense need, as a community, to come together and help heal human divisiveness. Stories matter more than ever now. While we can’t literally be together, we can offer storytelling that brings us together, and that’s what we’ve embraced as the best way to keep our mission vibrant and necessary in these challenging times.
To launch our “theatrical storytelling in the time of COVID” series, we have looked into the annals of IRT stage history and American popular culture and plucked out a story that has been celebrated in many different forms. We first produced This Wonderful Life by Steve Murray on the Upperstage in 2008. The play’s title is perhaps ironic in our current time. Some days it’s hard to find what’s wonderful in everyday American life amid a pandemic that separates and frightens us. That’s the same dilemma (without the virus) that George Bailey comes up against in the 1946 film on which the play is based, It’s a Wonderful Life. George can’t see how his life could have meaning. How many of us feel similarly these days?
We picked this play for a variety of reasons: we very much wanted to find a holiday piece that would gather people virtually, if not physically, around the idea of the best of American traditions: rediscovering community, reigniting individual purpose, and reinventing the essence of family celebrations. For many American families, the shared viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life (or its 103-year antecedent, A Christmas Carol) is the touchstone of the winter holidays. But the piece also brings us into direct contact with another important American ideal central to our country’s debates today: what makes a good person? What role do we each play in improving our small circle of influence? Is that role limited only to self-interest, or does it ask us to open our hearts to better view how we can help others?
George Bailey develops serious doubts about his own mental health. He experiences frightening economic hardship, a dim view of his family’s future, and the deepest of human disquiets: would his family be better off without him? Against the stark background of a pandemic, these questions feel close to home, as survival and mental health challenges have taken on deeper and more urgent meaning. As the Storyteller in the play says, “he found his way home again.” Through this pandemic, our concepts of home and safety are redefined almost daily as we struggle with worry about our far-flung family members and when we will see them again. Thus, a story that asks questions about what is home has real resonance and reverberation. And when George returns home at the end of the play, sweeping his family members into his arms, we all feel deeply his relief, mixed with our own longing for a time we can safely hug our loved ones near and far.
Also central to our decision to reopen with This Wonderful Life was our delightful realization that it could be fully enlivened by one of Indianapolis’s favorite performing artists: Rob Johansen, who has frequently been seen on IRT’s stages and elsewhere around the city. If, as suggested by film historian Stephen Handzo, It’s a Wonderful Life is A Christmas Carol told from Bob Cratchit’s perspective, then we’ve really got the right guy! Rob has played Bob Cratchit 11 times at the IRT and counts it among his favorite roles. Moreover, Rob is perhaps our city’s greatest chameleon. He can morph from character to character in the blink of an eye (an attribute we enjoyed in The Mystery of Irma Vep and The 39 Steps, to name only two!), and it’s clear that he thoroughly enjoys it. Rob has done two other one-person shows for us over the years--Underneath the Lintel in 2006 and After Paul McCartney in 2010—so we’ve been the lucky beneficiaries of his immense skills in this form. We all know that Rob is fully in his element when he can interact directly with an audience, but I’m sure he will find new ways to completely charm us through the lens of WFYI’s cameras, touching our hearts as we sit in our homes enjoying his performance.
We need hope these days. We need radical empathy. We need to believe that individual lives merit lifting and celebrating. We welcome you to a wild new chapter in IRT’s life!
The IRT produces top-quality, professional theatre that engages, surprises, challenges and entertains people throughout their lifetimes, helping to build a vital and vibrant community.
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