Rodgers directing 'Wonderful Life' at Woodford Theatre
Directing his stage adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life" for Woodford Theatre has been "a real blessing" for playwright James W. "Jim" Rodgers. In the 23 years since Rodgers wrote an adaptation of Frank Capra's 1946 film, he's never been asked to direct his stage version of "It's a Wonderful Life." So he's having a lot of fun weaving this classic story together wearing his director's hat - adding musical interludes to bridge the years of George Bailey's life. "I wanted to . help the audience move into . the next moment," says Rodgers. Frank Capra's classic holiday movie was based on a short story, which the Woodford County playwright says provided a structure for his stage adaptation. It begins with George Bailey and his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, reflecting on George's life. They talk on the bridge where George plans to take his life - wishing he'd never been born. "I think this play is not just a Christmas story," says Rodgers. "I think it's a play about what we all need to do in order to have a wonderful life." Rodgers says Virgil M. Covington Jr. brings a genuine warmth to his portrayal of Clarence. "When he has the wisdom lines," the director explains, "you feel them." Above all else, Rodgers says he wanted his actors to "find the character" before watching the film. He did not want them to become Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed or Lionel Barrymore onstage. "Luckily," he says, "many of them had never seen the film." And unbelievably, Rodgers never worked with most of the actors in his cast. His lead, Jason Meenach, had to remind him that he played minor roles in a couple of plays directed by the longtime UK theatre professor, "and quite frankly . I don't remember him in plays," including his portrayal of Topper in "Scrooge."
Covington performed in Woodford Theatre's "A Kentucky Christmas" last season so he has recent experience working under Rodgers's direction. Yet, he's enjoying this opportunity more because he's being directed by the man who wrote the stage adaptation. "So it brings a lot of joy to it," says Covington, "to see him as a 79 (actually 80)-year-old man being able to interpret this and put not only the words on paper, but the direction of the whole play together. "So it's been a lot of fun." In casting Meenach (as George) opposite Evender Hodges Sanders (as Mary), Rodgers immediately saw an onstage chemistry between the actors. He describes Meenach as very natural and vulnerable in his portrayal. "He allows himself to be just real. He doesn't try to act," says Rodgers. "The thing that makes George very special - and Clarence points this out to him almost immediately - is he dedicated his life to other people," he adds. "He wanted to make others people's lives better." Rodgers' stage adaptation has been performed on many stages in this country and abroad since its premiere at Lexington's Dunbar High School in 1993. One of his UK students, Trish Clark, now artistic director at Woodford Theatre, directed that high school production. Audiences will "hear her voice" as Mrs. Hatch in Woodford Theatre's production, which opens on Friday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. Performances of "It's a Wonderful Life" over three weekends continue through Sunday, Dec. 18, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $13 for students. Visit woodfordtheatre.com or telephone the box office at 873-0648 to purchase tickets.