“George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die!” is one of the most iconic quotes from the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it sets the tone for the rest of the film, says Jamie Ann Walters, resident actor at Greenville Little Theatre.
Walters is playing Mary Hatch Bailey, who utters the famous line when she is a young girl. “It’s a true testament of sticking with someone. She watches George’s downward spiral and sticks with him,” she says. “It’s all about when people around us are struggling and giving people that unconditional love and support and letting them know that you’re there for them, which is what the holidays are all about.”
The holiday movie finds George Bailey looking back on his life and his decisions, ultimately contemplating suicide from a bridge on Christmas Eve. The story takes a walk through Bailey’s life with his guardian angel, Clarence, and subsequently makes him realize just how much he affects those around him and how lucky he is.
“Around the holiday season is when people look at their families and reflect on having these wonderful people around them and having people who love and accept you. In the end George realizes that the entire community is his family,” Walters says.
Walters performs alongside Craig Smith, another resident actor at GLT, who is playing George Bailey. This will be the second season at GLT for both Walters and Smith, who are set to play love interests in almost every show this season.
“A lot of my scenes are with Craig, and my favorite part about playing [Mary] is how much she fights for what is right and what she wants, not in a selfish way. Every interaction we have, she is fighting for something,” Walters says. “We’re always pulling back and forth.”
The two characters, originally portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Donna Reed, are a true portrayal of relationships and the ups and downs of life. “A lot of people can relate to him because we’ve all been young and had these big dreams of everything we are going to do, and then things happen in life where those dreams are cut short and those plans fall through,” Smith says. “But if you didn’t take the route you are on, you wouldn’t be where you are or meet the people you’ve met.”
As for living up to a classic Christmas movie and two award-winning performances, Smith and Walters aren’t concerned. “While I do want to pay homage to Stewart’s role and the character, I also want to stay true to my personal take on the character, and that has been fun for me,” Smith explains. “You have to find that happy balance of showing people what they want to see but also bringing your own spin and your own take.”
“I think even if I tried to do the role like Donna Reed, I couldn’t just because I’m not her. It’s not that you want to be like them, it’s that you want to admire their work and pull what you like best from how they played the character,” Walters says. “It can be a lot of pressure because people just know them so well, but audiences are very forgiving, and as long as you are bringing honesty and truthfulness to the role, it will be good.”
Walters and Smith know they’re portraying a story that is near and dear to many viewers, but they say the classic is even better on stage.
“This play is like seeing the movie on stage, but in color with a lot more connection to the people that you are seeing, because they are right in front of you and you’re not seeing it on a screen for the millionth time over the holidays,” Walters says.
They both brag about the costumes and set design, as well as the child actors portraying the younger versions of their characters. The set is especially impressive with the focal point being the large bridge where Bailey finds himself on Christmas Eve: “It’s a constant reminder of what got them to that point,” Walters says.
The show is one that can be enjoyed by everyone in the family, longtime fans of the film or not. “It’s one thing to see it on your TV,” Smith says, “but it’s even better to see it live on stage and live the moments with them.”
If you go …
What: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 6-8 & 13-15 (Thursday, Friday, Saturday); 2 p.m. Dec. 8 (Saturday); 3 p.m. Dec. 9 & 16 (Sunday); 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 (Wednesday)
Where: Greenville Little Theatre