Playing with Tradition

  • By Josh Shaffer
  • Photography by Bryan Regan

Since 1974, The cast of Theatre in the Park’s A Christmas Carol has been revving up the classic play with irreverent humor. The Raleigh troupe never loses sight, however, of the story’s core message.

A Christmas Carol in Raleigh

For at least a century, any actor who dared play Jacob Marley, the moldering old spook who comes clanking into Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom, had to wrap himself in a tangle of padlocks and iron chains.

Tradition also required that Marley bellow like a basset hound, like a foghorn droning from somewhere beyond the grave. Dust should fly when the old ghost walks, and his footsteps should mimic the hollow thump of a one-legged pirate captain pacing the decks.

But after 14 years of playing Marley, David Henderson finds that chains can really spoil a good tap-dancing number. You’re a lot more nimble in a trim, blue waistcoat.

A lot goes on before the curtain goes up. Meet members of the cast of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park and visit a rehearsal as they prepare for another hilarious holiday and their annual production of A Christmas Carol. Ira David Wood IV starts as Ebenezer Scrooge in this year’s performance. Video produced exclusively for Our State magazine by Jenny Tenney.

To Henderson’s thinking, Marley can drop all that spectral moaning, too. It’s just not a convincing argument from a lost soul. “I tell Scrooge if he doesn’t get his stuff straight, he’s going to end up living in a van by the river,” says the veteran actor.

And finally, you’re not going to make A Christmas Carol dazzle anybody in Raleigh after 35 years if you play Marley in the same old ghostly white face. If you’re performing in Ira David Wood’s comic musical adaptation, you’ve got to bring a little more zip to the role.

“One year I came out in a vest with icicles all over it,” Henderson says. “We were onstage, performing, and David looked at me and said, ‘Somewhere, Liberace is very cold.’”

This playfulness, this willingness to toy around with a Christmas tradition more hallowed than eggnog, helps explain why Wood’s musical comedy attracts so many habitual admirers — especially onstage.

It takes tricky work to jazz up a play everyone knows by heart without ruining the Scrooge transformation at its center, to perform Las Vegas-style dance numbers in the middle of Victorian England while keeping the miser-turned-altruist story intact.

The unpredictability that Wood brings to Dickens each year explains why David Moore still gets excited playing the wage-slave Bob Cratchit, his role for the past 12 years. The changeable humor still inspires Brent Simpson after more than a decade; he gets a thrill each year pulling on his green-velvet costume and making jolly as Mr. Fezziwig.

The fluid, adaptable script helps you understand why Henderson still enjoys playing Marley to Wood’s Scrooge, nudging the old curmudgeon into holiday joy through so many Decembers. To hear the actors tell it, performing Wood’s A Christmas Carol is just as fun as watching it from the orchestra seats, and you feel as redeemed taking a curtain call as Scrooge does waking up on Christmas morning to find the spirits got it all done in one night.

In the past 10 years, Patty Gardenhire has watched all four of her daughters cross the stage, along with her husband — one time all in the same year. They even coaxed her to overcome her shyness and perform in it herself. Onstage, she says, it feels less like performing for strangers and more like putting on a family pageant in the living room.

“People have met in the show and gotten married,” says Simpson, who is also program marketing director for Wood’s Theatre in the Park. “People have been proposed to onstage. We even had a cast member get married during the show.”

Irreverence and redemption

Penned in 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol stands as the oldest and best-known holiday tale outside the New Testament, and its characters get dragged out of the attic each season like dusty snowmen. Since the invention of moving pictures, Scrooge’s story has inspired at least 26 film and television adaptations, its star actors ranging from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart to Mr. Magoo.

It’s challenging to play characters so cemented in society’s psyche. It’s hard to keep a show fresh when everyone knows the money line — “God bless us, every one” — before the curtains open. You can’t attack the stage every night, every year, with the same old top hat on Scrooge’s white-haired head. You can’t fill Memorial Auditorium in a recession if all you do is trot out Tiny Tim and his traditional, hollow-eyed optimism, leaning on his timeworn crutch.

That’s why Wood, a North Carolina native raised in Enfield, has his Jacob Marley quote comedian Chris Farley, and why he calls his group of gum-chewing backup singers The Marlettes. It’s why two years ago, Scrooge hoarded vaccines for the H1N1 virus, and why last year, the actors peppered performances with Tiger Woods gags.

“He never messes with the crux of the story,” Henderson explains. “The story is always the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge. If you can get people laughing, by the end of the show, you’ll have them crying.”    

People come for the jokes as much as the holiday redemption story, and the actors pull energy from Wood’s impromptu joshing. They know he’ll try to bust them up on stage. The biggest tradition for the actors is bracing for whatever nontraditional turn Wood’s A Christmas Carol will take, and acting their way through it.

Second chances

The humor, of course, is window-dressing for the holiday theme — a decoration hung from the idea that the worst of us can be reborn as the best, and that cruel and desperate times can be endured with a little hope. It’s no accident that A Christmas Carol nearly sold out in Raleigh last year in the thick of a recession, any more than it’s surprising that people saw movies during the Great Depression.

It’s a play, at its core, about second chances. Perhaps no one in the cast knows more about second chances than David Moore, the play’s perennial Bob Cratchit. It was about 1992, and the man who is now senior consultant to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina found himself struggling through a divorce.

Moore had two children, and as he took his aching first steps into a divided life, he asked himself, “What in the world am I going to do at Christmas?”

He’d seen Wood’s show, and he had always sung and played guitar on his own, so he wandered into auditions and nearly walked back out from dread. But Moore performed a folk-ish hymn, and Wood cast him in the play — largely, Moore suspects, due to his gray hair.

Moore’s first role was small: a townsperson. Then in Moore’s second year onstage, a friend introduced him to a woman named Carol, also a divorcee, whose son played the part of Moore’s A Christmas Carol child. 

They dated for years, with Moore a bit hesitant to get too close, then married on Thanksgiving in 1997. When Moore returned to the show a year later, Wood cast him as Cratchit — the role he has turned every year since then, the performance he considers as important a ritual as an anniversary dinner.

One time, Moore approached Wood during a rehearsal and asked him what all of this performing meant, why they were here on the stage night after night, what he saw as his mission in the theater. “To change people’s lives,” Wood told him, speaking a language that a man of faith would understand.

“The show for me,” Moore says, “became space and time for a second chance. I wonder what other people are bringing with them when they come to the show. Marriages. People dying. Jobs lost. Since I don’t know, I try to provide the same time and space that I had.”

When Moore sings his lullaby to Tiny Tim, he imagines himself singing to Wood alone. Wood lost his own father at age 12, and sitting on the edge of Tim’s bed, Moore tries to awaken memories of held hands and good-night stories — to recreate the bond between father and son.

When Moore finishes his song, Scrooge says, “I was just remembering my times,” and there is always the noise of sniffling in the crowd.

Just like last year

For an actor in Raleigh, there’s no shortage of plays. Henderson directed Twelfth Night at Koka Booth Amphitheatre this year before donning his Marley garb, and if you ask him, he’s just as excited to perform tried-and-true Dickens in downtown Raleigh as he is to take a first stab at outdoor Shakespeare in Cary.

Henderson has lived in Los Angeles. He’s lived in New York. Act locally, he says, and you can enjoy a house and a yard. Nobody recognizes him on the streets of Raleigh and calls out, “Hey, you’re Jacob Marley! Say, ‘Ebenezer Scroooooooooge!’”

But as he gears up for round 18, he wonders what one-liners Wood is busy inventing, or will toss out unexpectedly. Maybe a Sarah Palin joke. Maybe a BP reference.

He wonders who he’ll see out in the darkened theater, holding a son or a sweetheart or a father closer, just like they did last year.

See it in the Piedmont

Where to Catch A Christmas Carol in Central North Carolina

December 10-12, 16-19

Theatre Charlotte
(704) 376-3777

December 3-5, 7-12, 14-19, 21-24

Triad Stage
(336) 272-0160

High Point
December 3-5, 7-12, 14-19

North Carolina Shakespeare Festival
High Point Theatre
(336) 841-2273

December 17-18

St. Matthews Episcopal Church
(919) 732-7451

December 2-19

Temple Theatre
(919) 774-4155

December 19

Johnston Community College
(919) 209-2099

See it

A Christmas Carol
December 3-5
Theatre in the Park
Durham Performing Arts Center

December 8-15
Theatre in the Park
Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts Memorial Auditorium

(919) 831-6936

Josh Shaffer is an award-winning reporter with The News & Observer in Raleigh.

This entry was posted in Arts & Culture, Arts & Entertainment, Cities, December 2010, People, Piedmont, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>