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You’d have an easier time counting the needles on a Christmas tree than you would the number of versions of “A Christmas Carol.” Since its publication 178 years ago, Charles Dickens’ slim novella has become a ubiquitous yuletide tale. Adapted hundreds of times in nearly every medium, it features lines and characters which have become iconic, none more so than the miser-made-good at its center, Ebenezer Scrooge.
This holiday season, three DMV actors pound the boards as the OG — Original Grinch, that is: Matthew Randall at the Little Theatre of Alexandria; Gene Valendo at the Colonial Players of Annapolis; and Craig Wallace at Ford’s Theatre. They join a long and illustrious list of actors who have played Scrooge on stage and screen.
All three acknowledge the stakes of playing such a widely known character.
“The problem any actor who plays this role will face is you cannot forget your lines,” Randall quips. “Everyone in the audience already knows them.”
Many of us know Scrooge’s lines because we’ve seen at least one film version, from the 1951 version starring Alister Sims — the common denominator among Randall, Valendo and Wallace — to Jim Carrey’s digitally animated 2009 version. By one cinephile’s count, nearly 300 film versions exist, dating all the way back to a one-minute silent film from 1900.
Age was another common theme. Over email, Valendo points out that as a six- or seven-year-old, around the age many of us first encounter the story, he could not recognize its depths.
“I did not have the maturity or life experience to truly appreciate what was going on with Scrooge, or to understand the emotional, political and economical truths Dickens wove into the story,” Valendo admits.
But when first cast as Scrooge in 2019 at the age of 65, Valendo says “[I] quickly realized that I, in a very real sense, already knew Scrooge… [and] in a broader sense I already was Scrooge.”
By then, he had experienced loss, obsessed over economic security, and learned myopic self-interest.
“Many of us share Scrooge’s traits to varying degrees,” Randall admits.
“Who among us does not have regrets? Who among us doesn’t wish that we had done some things differently, and that things might be different somehow,” Valendo adds.
Such recognitions are key, the three actors say, to making Scrooge relatable to the audience. Otherwise, an actor risks reducing Scrooge to a cipher, something inhuman.
“He’s cold, because he’s loved and lost,” Wallace describes. “He’s not reconciled those losses, and so he’s not interested in compassion, in that ability humans have to reach out and touch other people.”
In Ford’s version, Scrooge dresses opulently, willing to spend his money on himself but not on others. He is less of a misanthropic miser than someone who simply looks out for himself first and only.
“I like the distinction that it’s his money, so he does with it what he sees fit,” Wallace admits. “He’s certainly not generous with it. When the solicitors ask for a donation, he says, ‘No. I contribute every time I pay my taxes.’ That’s cold, but in his eyes it’s practical. ‘I am already contributing.’”
No one, however, went as far as to call Scrooge an outright villain.
“I think a villain sets out to harm people,” Randall analyses. “Scrooge doesn’t do that, but one of the lessons of the show is you don’t have to be a villain to still harm people.”
Although Scrooge is undoubtedly dour early in the story, Randall finds some humor in the character.
“He’s intelligent, he’s witty, he cracks jokes with Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past,” Randall expounds. “I have to look for that kind of stuff. I look at every line he delivers to find something that isn’t quite so expected.”
In February 1868, Dickens gave a series of public readings at Carroll Hall, formerly at 924 G St. NW in D.C., a stone’s throw away from Ford’s. The National Republican newspaper called his performance “the most highly delightful entertainment that the citizens of Washington have ever enjoyed.”
While Dickens intended his Christmas tale to delight and entertain, Randall, Valendo and Wallace discussed at length the story’s profound social and political commentary. While learning the dire conditions of the working class and poor Victorians, all three saw contemporary resonances.
“The issues of social class, economic inequity, and disenfranchisement…are as present and relevant in the world today as they were in Dickens’ London in 1843,” Valendo states.
“There are still people who have too much, [and are] unwilling to help people who have too little in 2021,” Randall says.
According to Wallace, Dickens’ message can get “lost in the pageantry sometimes,” but its promise and the joy of Scrooge’s redemption keeps the show relevant after almost 200 years.
“We can watch and relish [Scrooge’s] transformation because in reality, there’s life,” Wallace adds. “We might not be able to be as compassionate as we like, or live in hope, because we have bills or this or that problem, but we can watch Scrooge in a pure journey and hope that there’s room for [transformation] in our lives.”
Don’t let the fact that Scrooge is in his pajamas for most of that journey convince you it’s not physically or emotionally demanding of an actor. As Valendo summarizes, “In a short span of time, Scrooge evolves from a stony-hearted penny pincher, to unbridled joy and exuberance when he is reborn to the spirit of Christmas; it is a very difficult arc to navigate, but that’s what makes it so worthwhile from an actor’s perspective.”
That’s likely why each of these actors have returned to “A Christmas Carol” time and time again. All three have been involved in previous productions, often as other characters, but like many audience members, they hope to be back next year.
“This is my fifth year [playing Scrooge at Ford’s] and I love it,” Wallace beams. “I’m still finding things.”
For these three actors, Scrooge and his fateful Christmas Eve journey are cherished parts of their Past, Present and hopefully times Yet to Come.
Colonial Players of Annapolis ended their in-person performances Dec. 12. Streaming tickets for Dec. 17, 18, and 25 available here.
Little Theatre of Alexandria’s sold-out run ends Dec. 18.
Ford’s Theatre’s in-person production runs through Dec. 27. Tickets start at $54. A radio version is also available here.