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Troy Lowry, Jr.(left) and Brian Kuhns rehearse for the Park High School theater production of "It's a Wonderful Life." (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Park High School brings 'It's A Wonderful Life' to stage

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Park High School brings 'It's A Wonderful Life' to stage
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

Poor George Bailey. He’s spent his entire life putting the needs of others before his own. The tormented protagonist of “It’s A Wonderful Life” feels responsible for the well-being of just about everyone in the town of Bedford Falls, N.Y.

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Troy Lowry, Jr. knows how he feels. The Park High School senior plays the role of Bailey in the stage version of the beloved 1946 Christmas movie classic. “It’s A Wonderful Life” runs Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 12-15, at Park High School in Cottage Grove.

For Lowry, playing George Bailey can feel like, well, George Bailey. He’s got a lot on his shoulders. He can’t let anybody down.

Lowry, 17, is onstage for most of the show. He’s the dramatic center around which the action revolves. Exciting? Absolutely. But it’s also a big responsibility.

“It’s probably the toughest role I’ve been in,” says Lowry, who has played serious and comedic roles at Park.

Lowry also must play George at different ages — as a boy working in Mr. Gower’s pharmacy, as a young man in love, and as a businessman who uses his own money to tide his depositors over when the stock market crashes.

“Aging the character,” as Lowry puts it, entails “going from one age to the other, because there’s a lot of flashbacks...I have lines on every page. It’s a little stressful trying to get them down.

“If I have a bad night, everybody has a bad night.”

In the film, Jimmy Stewart became an icon for his portrayal of a suicidal businessman who is saved by the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence shows Stewart what life in the town of Bedford Falls would be like had he never existed.

For this production, Lowry and faculty director Tracy Caponigri are acting as though Jimmy Stewart never existed. They’ve avoided watching the movie. They want this “Life” to be their own.

“He’s not Jimmy Stewart, nor should he be,” says Caponigri, who teaches English at Park. “He’s his own George Bailey.”

Brian Kuhns plays Clarence, an “Angel Second Class,” who has the celestial equivalent of a learner’s permit. He hopes his befriending of George will finally earn him his wings.

Kuhns says that Clarence is his biggest role in a high school acting career that has included “Once Upon A Mattress.” In the play, Kuhns has dialogue only with Lowry’s George Bailey, with occasional entreaties to the Man Upstairs. He spends much of his time onstage as a silent observer.

“We have been avoiding watching the movie because we want it to be an original show,” says Kuhns, 17.

Director Caponigri says the cast has had to grow up fast, so to speak. With a few exceptions such as freshman Conner Murray, who plays one of George Bailey’s children, most of the cast are playing adult characters.

“Getting them to play age is a challenge,” Caponigri says. “They stand like  teenagers. They gesture like teenagers. Getting them to stand outside themselves and look at themselves is difficult.”

For Caponigri and associate director Emily Ball, managing a cast of more than 25 students can be a bit like herding cats.

“You should be silently studying when you’re not onstage, not making the noise that you are,” Caponigri admonishes them when the level of conversation rises too high during a rehearsal break.

The challenge of “playing older” is not lost on Kate Munce. The sophomore, 15, plays Mary Hatch, the wholesome small town girl who George eventually marries. To research how married adults behave toward one another, Munce says she’s been observing her parents, Melissa and Jon, and consulting them on various marital matters. She says they’ve been very open and helpful answering her questions.

“This is kind of new territory,” she says.

The cast includes students who are members of the track team, math club, choir, and of course drama club. They’ve rehearsed an average of four-and-a-half hours a day for more than a month. As opening night nears, the pace has intensified. No more holding scripts — actors have to be “off book” and have their lines memorized.

“I think the cast really makes the show,” Munce says. “It’s like a puzzle. If the cast doesn’t click, and people don’t understand each other, it wouldn’t be good.”

Molly Moran, 17, plays Violet Bick, the town flirt whose disappointments eventually overtake her.  Her unrequited love for George, her childhood friend, is one of many bitter pills she must swallow.

“She’s in love with George but she never acts on it because she doesn’t want to mess things up for him,” Moran says.

She says she’s gone outside her comfort zone in plumbing the depths of her character who changes significantly from the opening to the final curtain. Things never really work out for Violet, who ages from dewy-eyed young girl to disillusioned floozy.

“I think she has more reality to her than other characters in the story,” Moran says. “I usually do comedy. I’ve never been the jealous friend before. I think it’s more educational than any role has ever been for me.”

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William Loeffler
William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 
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