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New Dawn Theater1
Average Rating Given : 1.00000
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It's A Wonderful Life, by James W. Rodgers
Wonderful Life - Terrible Production
Sunday, December 16, 2007
I don’t ever write reviews for shows I’ve seen, mostly out of a lack of motivation. I’ve seen good shows, and I’ve seen bad shows, but nothing that inspired me to take the time and effort to write a review. In the case of this production, however, I couldn’t keep it inside.
First of all, there is a misconception that needs to be clarified. In the newspaper, on the Red Clay Theatre website, and on the marquee outside of the theatre, this production is billed as “Red Clay Theatre Presents”. Nowhere did I see a mention of the true perpetrators of this embarrassment – New Dawn Theatre. I was not the only one who was unaware that Red Clay Theatre didn’t do this show – the couple in front of me commented in surprise when they saw “New Dawn” printed on the oversized program. If I had known for one minute that this was a New Dawn show, I would never have paid $22.00 for a ticket. The Aurora Theatre charges approximately the same ticket price – for professional productions. I have been subjected to two other New Dawn shows, and not only is New Dawn not professional, they are a poor example of community theatre.
But I digress. On to this particular New Dawn production – “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I’ll start with the technical aspects, as they are the most forgivable sins, given time and budget concerns community theatres usually struggle with. The set itself was dull and purely functional. There was no artistry, theme, or vision in the set pieces. A good set will not only serve the production, but enhance it. This set merely served. The same can be said of the lighting. Again, functional, although the lights were not well placed. Many of the actors eyes disappeared into shadow. Many community theatre groups would envy the lighting setup available at Red Clay, but New Dawn failed to take advantage of the opportunity to create a lighting scheme that would be part of the art, instead of merely illuminating it. The sound cues were poor, often late, and often jarring. Technically, I give the show a C.
As for the acting and directing, they make the deficiencies on the technical side pale in comparison. The director, Ms. Sherry Ingbritsen, could be charged with dereliction of duty. There was a complete lack of any evidence that this show even had a director. The blocking was minimal, consisting mainly of actors standing awkwardly next to each other, and then occasionally pacing back and forth for effect. Although I would never critique a child’s performance in a community theatre show, in this case I couldn’t critique any of the children actors even if I wanted to. In the two scenes the Bailey children appeared in, Ms. Ingbritsen seemed to hold close to the adage “Children should be seen and not heard.” In this instance, she kept the children shoved in the back corner of the stage, with George and Mary playing downstage, in front of the children. The children really could barely be seen OR heard as George and Mary paced back and forth in front of them, cutting off their few lines, and sending the message that the children and what they had to say were unimportant to the play. Anyone with real theatre experience knows that every role is important, and no role should be shrugged into the background. I could write pages on my view of what importance the Bailey children played in the script, but we would be here all night.
Speaking of characters whose roles were relegated to unimportant status by sheer lack of direction, we were into the second act before I realized that we hadn’t seen Bert and Ernie! It took some thinking on my part, but I eventually realized that the characters had been changed to Bert and Emma, and given absolutely no personality to make the stand out from the crowd of characters onstage. It takes a special something to make Bert and Ernie irrelevant.
Moving on to the more central characters, we’ll start with George Bailey, as portrayed by Martin Gravely. According to the board member bios in the program – which were given twice the prominence of the cast member bios – Mr. Gravely is the vice-president of New Dawn Theatre. Which may explain why he continues to take lead roles in their productions when there is much greater talent to be had in Gwinnett County. His George Bailey was overblown, inconsistent, and completely lacking in any sincerity. We begin the play with the scene of George and Clarence on the bridge, where we are supposed to believe that George is about to jump. Instead, he looks to be inspecting the bridge structure. He lacked any chemistry with Mary, which is ironic, since she is played by his real-life wife, Aliza Gravely. There was no passion between them – in fact, they appeared to avoid touching each other. A good director would have chipped away the block of ice between them and given us reason to believe these two were falling in love.
A good director also would have brought out the clear potential in Mike Yow’s Clarence. He was utterly charming on the bridge, but as soon as he stepped off the bridge, he affected this odd shuffle that completely distracted us from his portrayal of the angel. If this was the actor’s choice, it was Ms. Ingbritsen’s job to fix it. If it was Ms. Ingbritsen’s choice, it was a poor one. Whatever was trying to be conveyed by that shuffle did not get conveyed. I would have liked to see what Mr. Yow could have done with that role with some direction.
One of the bright spots in the production was Chuck Miller as Mr. Gower. This very talented actor did a fantastic job with his pivotal scene – when young George prevents him from poisoning a child. Other than the poorly executed “smacking of the ear”, it was a good scene.
Another talented actor that managed to rise above the lack of direction this play suffered was Todd Denson as Harry Bailey. Full of charm and vigor, Mr. Denson really brought Harry Bailey to life. Again, better directing could have enhanced his performance, but he did a splendid job with what he had.
Heading back down to the disappointing end of the cast, Violet Peterson was not only a disappointment, but an embarrassment. According to the program, the role of Violet was to be played by Barbara Moras. But the woman who came on stage was very clearly not the woman in the photo of Barbara Moras. In fact, judging by the two pictures of Ms. Ingbritsen in the program, I’m fairly confident that it was Ms. Ingbritsen herself who played the role of Violet, although no announcement was made to this effect. Ms. Ingbritsen as Violet was hard to watch. Not only was she clearly much older than the Mr. Gravely, whose character she was supposed to be holding a torch for, but she brought no charm or seductiveness to the role. She wandered on stage in a large fur coat that swallowed her whole, whined out her lines, and wandered back offstage. I would be interested to know what Ms. Moras would have done with the role, and why we were not treated to her version.
I do want to comment on Glory Hanna, who usually disappoints me, but who managed her role as Potter’s secretary with a surprising understated comedy.
The last specific actor I want to comment on is Steven Miller as Uncle Billy. Steven Miller has long been one of my favorite community theatre actors, but he really disappointed in this show. I saw none of the commitment to the character that I have come to expect from Mr. Miller, and he seemed to lack his usual presence onstage. I don’t know if he was weary from trying to do a show without a director, or if he was just off with this role. I’m looking forward to seeing him return to the quality of acting I usually see from him.
This review may seem harsh for a community theatre production, but here is where I stand – I was asked to pay the same ticket price as I would for an Aurora production, therefore I will hold this show to the same standards as I would an Aurora show. This is not to say that the Aurora never disappoints, but New Dawn consistently disappoints – even by community theatre standards. Judging by the program, it seems that Red Clay is going to wholly rely on New Dawn for their season. This is a big mistake, Red Clay, and I would rethink this arrangement, before it permanently tarnishes your reputation. I know I won’t return to Red Clay as long as it is cozied up with New Dawn. If Red Clay wants to charge those ticket prices, they need to hire a talented director who can put together the right cast, and guide the production to it’s best. My companions felt the same – when I asked them their opinion after the show, they initially hesitated, claiming they “don’t know much about theatre”, they just like to watch. I assured them the opinion of the audience is the most important opinion, because we don’t create theatre for ourselves, we do it to share it with the audience. They were sorely disappointed in the quality of the production, and probably won’t return to Red Clay either.
I only gave this show as high as 1 out of respect for those actors who managed to shine in spite their director.
ETA - I forgot to mention Mr. Potter as played by Chuck Mason. As with Mr. Yow, there was real potential there, especially as evidenced by the scene where he discovers that Uncle Billy has just deposited $8,000 in his lap. He really shone in that moment, and I think he could have done great things with that role if he had been directed.
Also, a shout-out to Janel Stover, who took her offstage role as Mrs. Hatch and really did quite a lot with it.

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