Pneumonia is a funny thing. It’s a pretty voracious illness, it can rob a body of its strength, and layers its victims in a wracking cough, saps a person of their will to do anything, except get through the day, and is just genuinely a pretty miserable experience in many ways.
In the early days of December 2003, the pneumonia monster descended on me and had its way with me, for a week or ten days or so. Antibiotics and rest were the weapons of choice normally employed against this vile sickness, you pretty much gotta tough it out and try to live to fight another day.
But this story is not about pneumonia. Luckily, my bout with this dreaded p-word is just a contributing layer to a much better story. On the first of October, 2003, I stepped out of a comfort zone and auditioned for a part in a community theatre production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It’s one of the moments that I think about when I reflect upon good decisions, things that went right, about choices that could’ve gone either way, but went the good way. In a religious sense, I like to think of it as God cracking open heaven for us, giving us a little sneak preview.
I like to tell people that I often get typecast for roles. This would be no exception, as I was cast in the role of the good-hearted angel, Clarence Odbody, who would earn his wings convincing George Bailey that life would not have been the same without his presence in it. I knew a handful of the people that were cast in the play, but most of them I had little more than passing knowledge of them before this adventure.
A prominent figure in our community had been responsible for the formation of our theatre group, and his goal for any production was not any size audience, gate receipts or glowing reviews – he wanted people to build community while they told stories from the stage. This cast accomplished his goal – for whatever reason, the chemistry, maybe it was this story settling in the hearts of the cast and crew… Who knows what causes lightning to be captured in a bottle? For whatever reasons, this play was blessed with very little turmoil, offstage drama or competing egos – these people proceeded to fall in love with each other.
So the cast bonded to each other, and we had such a wonderful time weaving this story together. Actors are loud and rowdy, and we held to form in this regard as well. Our director, a veteran of many, many productions, remembers this show as her favorite – though she did confess to having to vent frustration at times because of the constant outbursts of laughter, of silliness, of tear-inducing hysteria that the rehearsals seemed to produce effortlessly.
Early in production week of the play, a few of us went out after rehearsal to blow off some steam and share a little more time together. The next day I felt like death and quickly realized that this wasn’t a hangover, it was a serious illness. Good acting is about great timing, and the timing for pneumonia to show up could not have been worse. I tried to do what I could to stem the nasty illness, but when I showed up for makeup on opening night, I had a deathly chest cough and a voice that barely registered over a whisper. Our crack technical crew wired me with a microphone so that whatever rasps I could muster, would at least be projected out to the audience.
The rest of the cast was very accommodating to me and gave me places to lie down when I wasn’t on stage. Someone gave me a blanket to cover up to ward off the chills. The show went on, and it was a success, and the cast bonded in ways that I have seldom seen in group dynamics in all the times that I have been a part of plays, or organizations, or teams or anything.
Within a year we had had four reunions – who does that, has cast reunions? We did. The major casualty of my illness is that I remember very little of the week of production. But what I do remember is treasuring all of it, and being very thankful for the friendships that grew out of this experience.
The beacon of memory that has stayed with me is the final scene of the play. Nearly everyone in the cast, save for me, all of Bedford Falls, gathered around George Bailey’s Christmas tree to salute George and to celebrate the fact that he was a good man and his life made a huge difference.
I pulled up a chair offstage and had a decent vantage point of the set and the Bailey family Christmas tree. I would sit and watch and marvel at the family that we had become. Here were some beautiful people, people that I had come to love, on a set that was built with love, telling a story that I loved to a community that we all loved. The Christmas lights took on that bright, warm shimmer that enhances the colors and the brightness, like when you squint… or from free-flowing tears.