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Family front and center in Wheaton Drama’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Two generations of the Ogren family take on various duties in this 1940s-style radio show adaptation, running Dec. 12—15 at Playhouse 111 in Wheaton.

By Rob Reinalda

Four people. Four types of contributions. One last name.

The Ogren family is at the heart of Wheaton Drama’s upcoming staged radio show version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Sean Ogren is directing his parents (R.J. and Suzanne) and his wife (Sande), along with two dozen others, in the holiday classic based on the Frank Capra movie.

Brave man, one might think.  But given the extensive theatrical experience (and the close-knit nature) of this family, it’s clear that each member embraces the collaboration at the core of “show biz.”

Suzanne is appearing as Ma Bailey/Mrs. Davis, R.J. is part of the two-man sound effects team, and Sande is one of the Jingle Sisters, a vocal trio re-creating the harmonies of the 1940s.

The kids ‘grew up in green rooms’

Of her theatrical family, Suzanne says, “R.J. and I met in Drama in high school: He was pulling the curtain, and I was playing the psychiatrist’s wife in ‘Harvey.’  … Our children grew up in green rooms in Orlando; our daughter, Dawn, made her stage debut at 8 years of age, and Sean at 7.”

Sande offers, “I feel like we are bringing back the days of Vaudeville, when whole families were part of ‘The Act’:  ‘Live at the Hippodrome! The Ogrens!’”

Though the first time Sande has joined them all in a stage production, this is hardly the first collaboration for her husband and his parents.

“We owned our own theatre in Orlando when Sean was about 13,” Suzanne says, “and he did everything there from construction, to janitorial tasks, to performing onstage with us in ‘On Golden Pond.’”

Their most recent group effort was on Wheaton Drama’s “Full Circle,” a gritty, poignant drama set in the waning days of World War II. Sean directed that production in March/April of this year, with Suzanne as assistant director. Veteran artist R.J. depicted war-torn Berlin with a mural that spanned the back wall of the set, which he and Sean designed together.

On a musical note…

Sande, too, brings along a bounty of stage experience.

She returns to the Wheaton Drama stage singing—as she did in the 2012 cabaret “Broadway Ballot.” Sande joins Lori Skubich and Jamie Barrett in forming the Jingle Sisters, who will sing holiday tunes in the style of the Andrews Sisters, as well as original jingles (with music by Kathleen Dooley and lyrics by Sean Ogren) advertising local businesses.

Says Sean, “Sande and I graduated from the Florida State University School of Theater and took improv classes in L.A. together.  That sort of life has allowed me to appear onstage with my family a dozen or so times, work behind the scenes with them on productions far too many to count, be directed by them a handful of times, and direct them—if my count is correct—on six separate occasions.”

Sande says of this collaboration: “What a great way to spend the holidays—with family and doing something we love.”

Regarding her role, Suzanne says she’d “always wanted to ‘mature enough’ to be considered for Ma Bailey; I love the role, and I’m really glad I’m part of this wonderful cast.”

The boys who make the noise

In talking about his duties as an onstage foley artist, R.J. adds, “Sean asked me if I wanted to audition for an acting role in this year’s production, but I had so much fun being a sound effects man last year, I asked if I could do that again instead.”

R.J. rejoins his 2012 partner, Peter Lemongelli, in creating live sound effects, just as they were done during radio’s Golden Age. There’s also a fun twist on a classic Christmas song involving all the bells and whistles—and maybe a pop-gun—that they can get their hands on.

So, for Sean, what’s the most daunting part about working with one’s family as a director?

Sean says, “It’s hard to give compliments.”

Or receive them, apparently. Sean cites “that basic human tendency of not believing your loved ones when they tell you look great or are doing something well, of falling in to the stock reply of, ‘That’s very nice, honey, but you’re supposed to say that.’ It’s very funny, yet can be quite frustrating.

“What it comes down to,” he adds, “is that we all have so much fun doing what we do, and we respect each other’s talents implicitly.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a staged radio show, an adaptation by Tony Palermo of Frank Capra’s classic film. Performances will be Dec. 12—15 at 111 N. Hale St., Wheaton, IL., including matinee and evening shows on Saturday, Dec. 14.  Tickets for this fundraiser are $10, general admission. Further information is available at www.wheatondrama.org or by calling 630-260-1820. 

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