Jamie Horton: The professor returns with a 'Wonderful' message

 Jamie Horton. It's a Wonderful Life. Lone Tree Arts Center.

When Jamie Horton accepted a professorship at Dartmouth College in 2006, he left the bosom of an artistic home where he had performed in nearly 75 plays over 23 seasons with the Denver Center Theatre Company.

To say that it is a joy for him to come home to Colorado this holiday season to play with many of his friends of old, he says, is an understatement. Horton will be playing George Bailey in the Lone Tree Arts Center’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, opening tonight (Dec. 8) and running through Dec. 18. It’s the familiar story of the family man whose imminent  suicide on Christmas Eve is interrupted by his guardian angel. Only here the story is presented in a 1940s radio studio, complete with live, on-stage sound effects. And Horton (pictured right) will be playing alongside a whole host of familiar DCPA Theatre Company names including Stephanie Cozart, Randy Moore, Mark Rubald, Michael Santo and Director Randal Myler (Love, Janis).

Jamie Horton. It's a Wonderful Life. Lone Tree Arts Center.“I look back at my time at the Denver Center with profound gratitude,” Horton said. “It is a rare and extraordinary thing for an actor to have a 23-year home where you can lead a normal and full life bringing up a family in a community like Denver – and I cannot overstate how much that has meant to me.”

Horton’s seminal roles in Denver have included Frank in Spokesong (his first, in 1983), Sweeney in World of Mirth, Phillip in Orphans, Norman in The Dresser, Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, and Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo: Red White and Blacklisted – that last one for the Curious Theatre Company in 2004. He also worked extensively with the Creede Repertory Theatre and Stories on Stage.

Serving then as The Denver Post Theatre Critic, I wrote of him: “When Horton takes to the stage, he becomes the personification of an author’s pen stroke. He’s the epiphany made human. Words come out of his mouth with such authority, it’s hard to imagine the writer harboring any more conviction in his own words.”

But a career in academia called, and Horton has thrived since in his return to Hanover, N.H., where he attended high school and landed his first professional acting job at age 17.

“When I exited Denver stage right, I landed in a wonderful place and a wonderful job,” he said. “I just can’t quite believe 10 years have gone past.”

Dartmouth faculty are encouraged to continue their individual crafts outside of the university, and Horton has prospered over the over the past few years. He has become a regular at the Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., where he played Mr. Webb in a heartfelt 2015 production of Our Town opposite longtime DCPA actor John Hutton as the Stage Manager. Sam Gregory, the DCPA’s new Scrooge, joined them both in Vermont for last year’s A Christmas Carol. Horton and Hutton both played small roles in Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln.

 Jamie Horton.  Bernice/ButterflyHorton is now fresh off what he humbly calls “one of the brightest spots of my career” – making his New York stage debut starring in Orwell in America, a cautionary political tale directed by Peter Hackett, who was the DCPA Theatre Company’s second artistic director in the early 1980s. The New York TimesKen Jaworowski said flatly: “Mr. Horton delivers perhaps the finest performance I’ve seen Off-Broadway this year. While there’s scant spectacle, the dynamic Mr. Horton remains transfixing as he morphs from introspective to lively to frustrated.”

(Pictured right:  Jamie Horton was not yet a professor in 2003. But he played one in the DCPA Theatre Company’s world premiere of Bernice/Butterfly. Photo by Terry Shapiro.)

The experience meant so much to Horton, he said, because George Orwell has so much to say to America right now. The play takes place in the late 1940s, with Orwell talking about the dangers of totalitarianism, the value of compassionate socialism and reiterating the warning of his dystopian cautionary tale, Animal Farm. Orwell targeted his allegorical barnyard satire at the brutal dictatorship of Russia’s Joseph Stalin. But Horton says the lessons just as easily apply to America today.

“We did the play in October just prior to the election, and it was all just incredibly timely, similar to the experience I had in 2004 when I played Dalton Trumbo in Red White and Blacklisted for Curious Theatre,” he said. “Orwell was really prescient. He said, ‘I hope that what emerges is a society that cares for itself and for each other.’ And man, oh man, we’re going to need a good deal of watching out for each other in the next few years. The doors have been opened up to the darker places in ourselves, and we have many wounds to be healed.”

Theatre has a profound power to help heal, and Horton describes It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as “a wonderfully fun night of theatre.” A salve of sorts. But he said it is important that the Lone Tree Arts Center production acknowledge that when It’s a Wonderful Life was released in theatres in the late 1940s, “it was deemed by some to send the wrong messages about the common man and the evil of money,” Horton said.

George Bailey is a good man who dedicated his life to making things possible for his fellow man. But like Willy Loman, George is beaten down over time by responsibility, fate and a corrupt power structure. By the end of the story, George is snapping at his kids, insulting their teacher and contemplating jumping off a bridge. Honoring that part of the original story, Horton says, is essential to the success of the play.

“I feel the same about A Christmas Carol,” Horton said. “The London that Charles Dickens was writing about was a very dark place. And George Bailey goes to a very dark place in his life where he is close to committing suicide. But then he is given this opportunity to see that the dark spots we go into are essential to the appreciation of light.”

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play: Ticket information

At a glance: The classic film is told here as a live 1940s radio broadcast, complete with an applause sign, commercial jingles and on-stage sound effects. An ensemble of six actors  bring of an ensemble play several dozen characters to tell the story of the idealistic George Bailey who considers ending his life one fateful Christmas Eve.

  • Presented by the Lone Tree Arts Center
  • Dec. 8-18
  • 10075 Commons St., just west of I-25 and Lincoln Avenue
  • Adapted by Joe Landry
  • Directed by Randal Myler
  • Showtimes:

Thursday, Dec. 8: 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 9: 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 10: 1:30 p.m.; 8 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 11: 1:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 14: 1:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Dec. 15: 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 16: 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 17:  1:30 p.m., 8 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 18: 1:30 p.m., 7 p.m.

Cast and crew:

Cast: Jamie Horton, Stephanie Cozart, Janet Dickinson, Mark Rubald, Randy Moore, Michael Santo, Randy St. Pierre, and Lisbeth Splawn

Creative team includes: Michael R. Duran (scenic designer), Brian Freeland (sound designer), Laureen Klapperich (costume designer), Jen Kiser (lighting designer) Bob Bauer and Rob Costigan (properties) and Erik Jauch (stage manager).

Bonus coverage: The Jimmy Stewart connection

Horton isn’t intimidated following in Jimmy Stewart’s footsteps because he’s pretty much been doing that his whole life – including once playing Elwood P. Dowd in another signature Stewart film, Harvey.

“I have always felt connected to Jimmy Stewart,” he said. “We both went to Princeton University and acted in the same spaces, though many years apart. People have remarked at one time or another throughout my career that there is something similar about our personas. And I have a marvelous appreciation for how wonderful he is in that film. One of the challenges for me is to try to capture what he brought to the role without trying to do an imitation of him.”

Bonus coverage: Jamie Horton on Terry Dodd

Horton returned to Denver to direct local playwright Terry Dodd‘s Home by Dark for Curious Theatre in 2010. The semi-autobiographical story recalled when Dodd came out as gay to his cop father in the 1970s. Dodd died of a heart attack on Oct. 12, and Horton attended his memorial celebration last season at the Arvada Center.

“Terry was a good friend and a man whose life was cut off way too damn short,” Horton said. “Just to see how many people were there and were so connected to him was a glorious testament to his life. More than anything, the thing that really struck me is that Terry’s  was a wonderful life. And it continues because the reverberations of what Terry was in this life will go on in the lives of all of those people who were in that room. He was at the center of this community in so many ways.” 

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