Before getting involved in theatre, I was a student of history. As a young man I learned about my grandparents- who passed when I was young- from stories I heard, and in the case of my father’s family history which was well-documented, books I read. Reading those books led to others and today, I still have a soft spot for plays that are set in the past, involve colorful characters, and tell us something about who we are.
This Wonderful Life is set in the 1930s and 40s, the time of what Tom Brokaw dubbed ‘The Greatest Generation’. This generation of Americans survived the great depression and then fought the Second World War. It was a time of ‘can do’ and the era of American exceptionalism. When my friend Ed Christian first looked at this part, he said George Bailey reminded him of his own father, also of that generation.
In my family, it was my grandfather, Arthur Rotch, who lived during that time. He has a story of missing his generation’s war, though it gets a little goofy:
He served in ROTC during World War I and graduated in 1918. He spent the summer of 1918 trying to get overseas in time to serve, but a balky appendix kept him out of action till after the armistice. Family lore describes this young man trying as hard as he could to get assigned to a unit that would be sent into action as quickly as possible. Much later, he served in a naval reserve unit and told tales of escorting destroyers down the Quincy river before they headed into action – usually commanded by young captains who drove much too fast for close waters. I heard most of these stories in my father’s voice, who passed them on with mix of humor and pride in my grandfathers’ stubborn commitment to serve as best he could, while still filtering in some of his regret that he had to stay home.
What my grandfather did was not as glorious as leading men over the wire in France, or commanding a destroyer in the pacific, but like George Bailey, he did what he could, and is remembered proudly by his family for it.
I thank Ed for his remark that reminded me of my family’s connection to Frank Capra’s characters and their time. Ed plays so many different characters so well tonight, as Terry Cramer describes in her director’s note later in the program, I’m sure you will see someone you love rendered in his performance. Maybe it will be Mary, or ZuZu, or Martini the bartender, or Uncle Billy. Like listening to my father tell the story of my family, you can sit back and hear Ed tell you this story of an iconic American family.
What Ed does tonight is one of the hardest, and most rewarding things for an actor: To tell an entire story himself, with no castmates to catch him if he drops a line, and no breaks while others are on stage. It is a remarkable theatrical achievement for one of our most stalwart company members. When I lose myself in the play, which happens every time I’ve seen it so far, I always at some moment remember my father’s voice. It is pitched differently from Ed’s, and the accent is northern, but I remember it because it was the voice that told me those stories of my grandfather.
May you remember your favorite storyteller and your favorite stories tonight, as you listen to one of Juneau’s most gifted tell you one of America’s best holiday tales.
Art RotchArtistic Director