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It's one of the most iconic films of all time and a universally known story during the holidays - or at anytime.

So the task of the Lebanon Community Theatre is not so much to educate the audience about "It's a Wonderful Life," but to present it well and make it believable.

"I think this is a show that's gonna be unique to audiences because everyone knows it so well," Jack Cantwell, who plays guardian angel Clarence Odbody, said during a break in a recent dress rehearsal. "What we have to do as actors is bring out the emotion of the characters."

Kirstyn Schaeffer, playing the fun-loving Mary Hatch who marries George Bailey in the storyline, agreed.

"I think with our characters, like Jack said, we're trying to create that emotion for the audience while bringing our own personalities to the part," Schaeffer said.

"It's a Wonderful Life" opened Thursday as Lebanon Community Theatre's 2015 holiday offering. The show continues Thursday, Dec. 10, through Sunday, Dec. 13.

"It's a Wonderful Life" became a treasure of the silver screen after its 1946 release and, of course, is shown on network television each year during the Christmas season. James Stewart crafted George Bailey into one of his legendary roles, and Donna Reed portrayed Bailey's wife, Mary.

The plot focuses on Bailey, who gave up his big dreams of traveling to stay in his hometown of Bedford Falls and take over his father's Building and Loan business. But, on Christmas Eve, his uncle Billy misplaces an $8,000 loan and, fearing he will be held responsible and the business will collapse, he contemplates suicide.

Enter Clarence, the guardian angel hoping to earn his wings, who falls to Earth and shows Bailey how his family and friends would have turned out if he had never been born. It's not a pretty picture, and George finally realizes that life is wonderful.

Directing the production is Karen Dundore-Gulotta, who is a veteran of LCT holiday productions, but it's her first time at the helm of "It's a Wonderful Life."

"I've never directed this show. I've never even seen it staged," she said. "I've only seen the movie."

But Dundore-Gulotta is certainly prepared. She watched the movie and started studying the stage script months earlier.

"I try to get in the mind of the playwright and carry out his vision for it," she said.

It doesn't hurt that she has a stellar cast of LCT veterans. In addition to Cantwell and Schaeffer, Jack Ferry is very effective in the lead role of George Bailey. Ed Rutter is a delight as the grouchy, wealthy, Scrooge-like Henry Potter, who would own the entire town if it wasn't for the Building and Loan.

Joseph Chubb plays Harry, George's brother, and Ethan Tucker plays the young George Bailey. Bruce Kissinger plays uncle Billy, Linda Alonzo is aunt Tilly, and Sue DeSendi is Mother Bailey. About 20 other actors are in the cast.

If the moral of the story is wonderful, so is the chemistry among the cast. Ferry said that he noticed something special developing within the cast during the first week of rehearsals.

"It's such a fun show," Ferry said. "I got to do it 15 years ago (when he played Harry Bailey). Ed (Rutter) and I are the only ones to do it before. It's such a fantastic show, and it's great to do it with such a wonderful cast."

Ferry, who appeared on the LCT stage in April in "The Sunshine Boys," said that playing George Bailey is the ultimate honor.

"This is kind of like the secret bucket-list part I always wanted," Ferry said. "I never had a role with so much emotion."

Rutter is perfect as the mean-spirited Potter. Maybe too perfect, he said jokingly.

"I've been accused of being type-cast in this part," Rutter said, before turning serious. "The essence of this show brings out your very best.

"I think this is the easiest cast I've ever worked with," said Rutter, noting that the stage crew has also been exceptional. "The cooperation among everyone has been great."

Cantwell, who played the wizard in LCT's production of "The Wizard of Oz," said, "I feel blessed to have this role. I'm an older fellow and there's not a lot of meaty roles for older fellows to be able to create a layered character like Clarence."

Dundore-Gulotta also felt something special from the very beginning.

"Our first read-through, I was so moved I was crying," she said. "I knew then I had everyone in the right role."

Said Rutter, "It's just the magic of the show."

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During each performance, drawing baskets and boutique items -- all handmade -- will be available for purchase in the theatre lobby. All proceeds will be donated to Habitat for Humanity of Lebanon County.

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