At the "most wonderful time of the year" will be Walt Willey's latest production of "It's a Wonderful Life."
The holiday classic will be staged Wednesday, Dec. 6, through Sunday, Dec. 10, at the 807 Building Performance Space in Ottawa, as part of WilleyWorld Community Productions, in cooperation with OmniArts.
“We’d talked about doing a holiday-themed show for a while and 'It’s a Wonderful Life' seemed like the perfect choice, especially since this adaptation stays very close to the 1946 film we all know and love,” said Willey, WWCP’s founder, artistic director and director of next week's play.
Chance Willey, Walt's son and an actor in his own right, believes he has the role of a lifetime in the winter production that will run concurrent with the second weekend of Ottawa's Chris Kringle Market.
He will portray the main character, George Bailey, alongside Pop Bailey, portrayed by Walt, his real-life father.
"I don't remember when I first saw ‘It's a Wonderful Life,’ but I do recall being deeply moved by it and finding myself wanting to be George Bailey," Chance said. "He became an immediate hero of mine and since then, I have done my best to emulate George in my daily life."
Chance Willey has some theories as to why this story has made such an impact in his life.
"Why I latched onto George so instantly, I don't know. Maybe it was, because I was lonely as a child (our farm was 20 miles from town) and wanted friends like George, or maybe it was the great clothes of that era. Maybe I just saw a skinny guy being a hero and that made me feel that I could win.
“No matter how it began, as I grew older and became aware of the selfishness and greed that seems to power our contemporary world, I came to absolutely love George and everything he stood for and came to the realization that his very existence — if only on stage or celluloid — is a credit to and a cry for man's better nature: to do for others before oneself, to measure one's wealth by one's relationships," he added.
"I am terribly proud to be bringing over a decade of preparation to my portrayal of this wonderful hero onstage."
Chance said while he is respectful of the past performances by other George characters — primarily that of James Stewart in the 1946 film, he hopes to bring something new to the character and make it his own.
Terry Thompson, who is no stranger to the stage and has worked with Willey before, has come a long way to be part of "It's a Wonderful Life" — literally.
Although Thompson used to reside in Ottawa, since 2015 he has lived in Burr Ridge — more than 60 miles away. Yet, this production is important enough to him to make the drive.
"When Walt called me this fall and offered me the part of Clarence (the angel), I didn't have to think about it for a minute, and told him that one of our cast members, Chris Harkin, who has been in several productions with us, traveled even farther than that.”
Thompson has a special connection to the story that has been a decades-long holiday tradition.
"I graduated college from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., which is just down Lake Seneca from the town that Frank Capra had in mind when he wrote about Bedford Falls (the town in the show). The town is Seneca Falls, and I read somewhere that they have established a museum there devoted to ‘It's A Wonderful Life,’ " he said.
"I have watched the movie every year at Christmas for as long as I can remember.”
Thompson explained how he approached his character development.
"A day doesn't go by that I don't have new insight into my role. I started thinking about a first responder to an attempted suicide, then I thought of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the Christmas ghosts. Walt suggested I think of the role as Santa Claus, then I heard a sermon about God's love and it made me think of Clarence as a loving savior and protector. So, if I can put all those ideas together, that would be how I am approaching the role," he said.
Newcomer to Willey's productions is Ottawa native and Illinois Valley Community College student Lindsay Wheeler, who will portray Mary Hatch.
Wheeler has watched the movie many times since childhood and believes she has a fairly good idea of who her character is meant to be. When asked by Walt Willey what she thought of Mary, Wheeler reflected on another classic movie character.
"I had watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ I don't know how many times since I was a kid. I thought for a minute and replied to Walt with a quote from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that Glinda the good witch had said: ‘Home is a place we all must find, child. It's not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we're always home, anywhere.’
"That quote perfectly describes Mary; she knows what she believes in, she knows what and who she loves, and she knows exactly where she wants to be: with the love of her life, George Bailey," Wheeler said.
Streator’s Greg Tullis will portray the callous Mr. Potter. According to Tullis, he has enjoyed a mutually respectful relationship with Willey and has enjoyed creating the character under Willey's guidance.
He's got quite an arsenal of inspiration for development of the infamously mean boss character, while hoping to bring his own take on it.
"I purposely did not want to copy Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of Potter, but I have tried to channel bits and pieces of Barrymore, Scrooge, the Grinch and Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series to create a very cruel and heartless man,” Tullis said.
"Though Potter is truly the evil one, I have thoroughly enjoyed creating a character that is completely opposite of who I actually am. It’s been a joy sharing the stage with Chance Willey. His portrayal of George is amazing! I love getting to play his nemesis night after night.
“That’s one of the thrills of community theater. Getting to play enemies with your friends and making it believable," Tullis said.
Additional cast members will include Michelle Hainline, Mary Morgan, Randy Oltman, Chris Harkins, Zander Dziedzic, Oliver Ruvalcaba, Chris Aubry, Geri Perry, Lloyd Chapman, Anthony Epperson, Bob Bragg, Charlotte Beach, Darlene Halm, Carol McConville, Brian Rehor, Lilly Harding, Karen Leifheit, Abbey Thumb, Abby Mascal, Josh Stacy, Melissa Guerrero, Juliana Thrush and Antonio Sellers.
Jan Hartman, Devon Ford, Alea Ogle, Wayne Underwood, Alice Epperson, Merit Willey, Jennifer Leonard and Ainsley Leonard will serve on the production side.
“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE,”a WilleyWorld Community Productions play, will be performed Wednesday, Dec. 6, through Sunday, Dec. 10, in the 807 Building Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa.
PERFORMANCES WILL BEGIN7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
TICKETS ARE$20 in advance, $25 at the door and on sale now through the Ottawa Visitors Center at 815-434-2737, and online at waltwilleyworld.com