Two decades ago, when actor Nathaniel Fuller was playing Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie Theater, he enlisted other cast members to raise funds for gifts to be delivered to a needy Twin Cities family. That tradition of generosity, which doubles as an important cast-bonding exercise, continues today.

"It began as a way to extend the message of the show," said Fuller, who is performing in his 24th "Carol" production. "It's just something we do from the heart that lives out the creed of the show."

For many of the 45 members of the cast of the Guthrie's 38th production of the holiday staple, which opens Saturday in Minneapolis, stories of sharing and kinship do more than echo themes in the show. They are reasons to want to be part of a production that becomes something that is not just work during the gift-giving season.

"I make a salary in the theater, but not necessarily a profit," said Fuller. "The fulfillment comes in other ways."

Touchstones and traditions

The Guthrie's annual holiday show, with its message centered on charity, family and togetherness, has delighted audiences for generations. Some of that spirit rubs off, as well, on the acting company and creative team. They quickly become attached to one another, said many of those interviewed. Coming together at this time of year for intensive rehearsals and a hectic performance schedule, cast members say they regard this production as very special.

"It really does feel like I'm coming home and slipping into a pair of really comfortable slippers," said Isabell Monk O'Connor, who returned from a yearlong engagement at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to join the cast during tech rehearsals. "You watch so many kids grow up onstage, you become a protective auntie."

Monk O'Connor has been in "Carol," which opens Saturday, at least 15 times since the mid-1980s. For the past three years, she has played Mrs. Dilber, a laundress, and Bumble, a Salvation Army volunteer.

'We are family'

The cast could sing Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." For two years, Fuller's daughter, Amanda, acted in the company. Actors Tracey Maloney and Kris Nelson became engaged while performing in "Carol" in 2006 and tied the knot the following year. This year, Maloney plays the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Polkinghorne, while Nelson plays big-hearted Bob Cratchit. They have a niece, Ella Nelson, who plays a Cratchit daughter and a sister-in-law, Michelle O'Neill, who understudies Monk O'Connor.

The cast also includes husband and wife Angela Timberman and Jay Albright, who play, respectively, Merriweather and Mr. Fezziwig. And Bob Davis, who has one of the longest tenures of any "Carol" actor, has performed in the show over the years with his children.

Eliciting warmth and light

Maloney and Nelson were all smiles as they talked about a show that keeps them from visiting out-of-state relatives at the holidays. They take pleasure in bringing joy to their faithful audience, including one extended family that numbers up to five dozen members that has been coming to the show for years. They all sit front and center and all sport red sweater vests.

"That's a real pleasure for us," said Maloney. "Besides, you don't have to deal as much with the stress of trying to travel, then get back here for performance."

Her husband, who hails originally from Utah, agreed.

"I remember we used to try to get out there, have Christmas, then turn right around," said Nelson, whose brother, Lee Mark Nelson, also has been in past productions of "Carol." "Those trips were grueling. There's a calm that we have with this arrangement now, a nice way of celebrating family at the place where we are."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390