The Guthrie Theater’s Ebenezer Scrooge has four arms, four legs and two actors who are of one mind.
“What we’re finding is that we’re just agreeing. We haven’t come to blows about anything,” says Charity Jones, who’ll play Scrooge in 13 performances at the Guthrie this season while primary Scrooge Nathaniel Fuller bah-humbugs his way through 43.
The two share the same lighting, co-stars and sound design, so their performances can’t interfere with those technical aspects, but they’ll enact their own interpretations within that framework.
On the big questions about the play, they are in accord: They want to get as close as possible to novelist Charles Dickens’ message of generosity and joy.
Jones played four performances last season but, as her workload triples in 2018, she knows casting a woman as Scrooge is a Very Big Deal.
“Not to harp on the woman thing but Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the great creations of English literature, and the book has never been out of print, and there are productions all over the country that are parts of people’s holiday traditions. There is no female equivalent,” says Jones, who’s in her eighth “Christmas Carol” production but her second as the miserly star.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity for me and I couldn’t be more excited about it. But what it also is, is an opportunity to flex some muscles that I haven’t flexed in a long time — if ever. The role has that many challenges, that much emotional dexterity.”
Jones and Fuller agree — there’s that word — that transforming from a miser to a man who embraces the holiday with childlike energy is almost like playing two roles. Two very big roles.
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Christmas “is the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
— From Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
Lest any “Christmas Carol” purists worry, Jones plays Scrooge as a man, in the same tradition that won Linda Hunt an Oscar for “The Year of Living Dangerously” and earned Sarah Bernhardt a place in history as “Hamlet” 140 years ago (a play about those events, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” is now on Broadway).
But even though Jones has played men before, she said she was “dumbfounded” when director Lauren Keating asked her to don Scrooge’s top hat.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It took a lot of convincing on her part and a lot of encouragement from my husband [actor John Middleton] to get me to make the leap,” admits Jones. “But once I started to think about it, I didn’t think about gender. I just get him.”
Fuller has noticed moments of vulnerability in Jones’ performance that he plans to “steal,” but the actor, who has played many parts in 30 of the Guthrie’s 44 “Christmas Carols,” insists gender is a nonfactor.
He said he went to a preview last year at which Jones played Scrooge. “I sat next to some people who came in late and had never seen the show, and they asked me at intermission if that was a woman playing the role. They completely bought it. As she becomes Scrooge, you’re watching the story and interested in the decisions she makes. It’s a trick of the imagination, and it’s wonderful.”
The Guthrie veteran’s interpretation is his own, of course — Jones considers him the Scrooge that Dickens created — and, inevitably, moments will resonate differently, depending on whom audiences see.
“Certain interactions with other characters don’t play the same when there’s a female body in the suit,” says Jones, citing a moment when Scrooge, having transformed, encounters his embarrassed laundress, Mrs. Dilber. “Scrooge says, ‘I must get dressed,’ and she does a bit with a gasp and a ‘Mr. Scrooge!’ and covers her eyes. That gets a laugh with Nat. Doesn’t get a laugh with me.”
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“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”
Jones and Fuller built their performances the way they usually do.
“I’m attacking it the way I would any other character, not looking for a particular female perspective. I’m trying to embody the character of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge the best I can, with the tools I have,” says Jones, a longtime Children’s Theatre Company member who also has acted at Park Square Theatre, the Jungle and in the Guthrie’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Lear” (opposite Fuller). “The vast majority of us, if we’re being honest, can recognize the Scrooge in ourselves. I think that was Dickens’ point, honestly.”
That’s the insight that director Keating was hoping for when she brainstormed potential Scrooges. Jones, whom Keating calls “dramaturgically, one of the smartest actors I’ve ever worked with,” came to mind immediately: “I didn’t specifically say, ‘Let’s audition women’ or ‘Let’s only audition certain kinds of people.’ It was, ‘Let’s think about all the great actors who might really crush it.’ And that’s Charity.”
One challenge that both actors face could be dubbed the Ghost of Christmas Carols Past: Having been in the show so many times, it’s hard to get previous versions out of their heads.
Fuller recalls a rehearsal years back at which he realized Richard Ooms was reverting to dialogue from a different version of the play. Jones says she once caught herself duplicating Peter Michael Goetz’s delivery of a line until she realized, “I don’t have to do it that way!”
But the Scrooges can build on their work from last year, according to Fuller, who switches to the role of pawnbroker Old Joe when Jones is on as Scrooge (Jones is Old Joe when Fuller is Scrooge).
“Lauren wanted to edit and reshape it, the idea being to get as close to the spirit of Dickens as possible,” says Fuller, who always has his copy of the novel close by. “One thing I learned last year is that it really works, so this year it’s about making some refinements.”
His collaborators concur.
“I don’t know that I’d be doing it if I feel like we accomplished everything we set out to do,” says Keating.
As Jones sees it, “Lauren’s focus is storytelling: When we’re not successful telling the story, let’s get in and fix those parts.”
Many details are being adjusted, but one big one that audiences from last year will notice — or, rather, not notice — is the Dementors, ghostly creatures who appeared on stage during set changes to sustain the otherworldly mood. There was a feeling that they overstayed their welcome.
“Instead of using them to mask a scene change, this year we’re using the scene changes to continue to tell the story,” says Jones.
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“God bless us, every one.”
Even with all the changes, including an increasingly diverse cast, the goal of the Guthrie’s “A Christmas Carol” remains the same, says Keating: “to do something that is really close to Dickens’ intention and that is the best possible expression of our Guthrie values. It is the most diverse audience of the year and I feel strongly that those audiences should feel welcome and at home and excited by what they see.”
That emphasis on diversity and inclusion may strike theatergoers as a fairly recent phenomenon, but it isn’t. Jones points out that it’s right there in “A Christmas Carol,” a book written 175 years ago:
“Everybody knows that the last line is ‘God bless us, every one.’ But before that Dickens writes, ‘All of us,’ and then he repeats it: All. Of. Us.”