Come December only one role really matters: Scrooge. But there’s more than one way to approach it, and when actors playing the same role in different shows get together, the first thing they do is talk shop.
“You got to, right?” says Craig Wallace, playing in the annual “Christmas Carol” extravaganza at Ford’s Theatre. His counterpart, Paul Morella, has made a holiday staple of his own intimate solo version at the Olney Theatre Center.
Wallace, 52, and Morella, 61, first appeared together in Signature Theatre’s 1999 “Angels in America,” and their paths have crossed several times since then as they’ve acted in plays from Arthur Miller to Shakespeare.
Dueling Scrooges is something new, though. Wallace played smaller roles in Rochester and Milwaukee “Carols,” and he’s now driving the large-cast Ford’s show that includes big special effects for the ghosts; he’s the first African American to play Scrooge at Ford’s.
Morella’s hands-on approach includes personally greeting audiences as they arrive and depart. He used to do it in his Victorian character, but inevitably someone asked, “So how’s your mother?” (He’s the son of Maryland’s Connie Morella, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987-2003.)
“You have a booming voice,” Morella says to Wallace as they chat at Ford’s. “My Scrooge is not that. He’s scratchy. It’s annoying and grating, but it evolves from there.”
This is what actors talk about when they talk about Scrooge.
Wallace: For one thing, he never leaves the stage. The play really happens around him, yet everything that happens affects him. So eyes are always on you. You can’t feel, “Oh, I can just be in the background, and nobody will be looking at me.”
Morella: I think that’s even the case with one person. I don’t do it as Dickens; I’m a Dickensian everyman [playing all the characters]. Yet Scrooge’s presence hovers over every scene.
Wallace: The resonances are not lost on me. Compassion, charity and taking care of each other — that’s how we survive. That’s what makes the story so great, especially in the political climate we’re in. It’s not a cartoon. This is a real person going through a real thing. It could be you.
Morella: This year, the “T” word comes up a lot. I’ve even had people say, “You should do it as Donald Trump!” [Scrooge] is a pragmatic businessman in so many ways. But he isn’t just a caricature.
Wallace: That’s the thing. When you first see him, you think that Scrooge is untouchable. But the warning from Marley, and then from these spirits, allows him to unlock all that stuff.
Morella: It’s really an incredible gift Marley gives him.
Q: Did you have an early idea of Scrooge?
Wallace: Alastair Sim.
Morella: That was my favorite.
Wallace: My mother loved that. I saw it every year from the time I can remember. That’s my image. I saw the George C. Scott. I’ve never seen the Muppet one, which a lot of kids in the cast talk about. (laughs)
Morella: The “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” is terrific. In fact, the charwoman scene in “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” — it walks that line of macabre humor. It’s spooky and scary. It’s so weird to have Mr. Magoo speaking the original text. But it’s right up there for me.
Q: How do you approach Scrooge?
Morella: As an actor you get to plunge yourself into the darker curmudgeonly aspect, and early on I don’t think there’s a limit to it. Dickens has that incredible narration where he gives you the backdrop of what Scrooge is like in the beginning, with his pointed nose, bloodshot eyes and thin lips. It’s almost like just to say those words, he morphs out of you.
Wallace: When I play Shakespearean characters, because those characters are largely fictional and subject to interpretation, if I’m playing the Scottish king, I’m just a black Scottish king. And whatever comes out of that comes out of that. All I can do is play the story and let people interpret it how they will. I want you to feel him as a human being. It’s London, we’re Victorian — but this is who you’re looking at. Ford’s has been great to take this chance.
Q: What are the pros and cons of being in a big show vs. performing on your own?
Wallace: Even though we have a huge cast, it’s almost like a one-person show with 25 other people. The stage managers joke at the top: They just push me out there and say, “Bye. See you at the end of curtain call.”
Morella: The first time you do a one-person show, it feels like it’s about “Look at me doing a one person show” — the actor Everest thing. But that’s not interesting for the audience to watch. There are certain things you can only do in a one-person show; the audience becomes your scene partner. I will say that cast parties are the dullest. It’s a lonely experience in the dressing room.
Wallace: Oh, the bowels of the Atlas? There would be times when I had the entire backstage to myself, just me and the stage manager. Nights when Rorschach Theatre had a show, it was so great to hear other voices buzzing around.
Q: What would we overhear if you were chewing over what it’s like to play Scrooge?
Wallace: We started that during the photo shoot. Immediately we were, “How are you doing this moment?” I was telling him how in the Milwaukee production there’s a scene between young Marley and young Scrooge, and in that scene, you actually see Marley pulling Scrooge over to the dark side. I was saying it would be fun to have that, because it also links to why Marley’s there. In some ways, Marley’s a little responsible.
Morella: That was the conversation. There is that sense of responsibility to your fellow human being. With Scrooge, there’s the sense that there is a living, breathing, feeling person in there; it’s just been piled on, rather than something that doesn’t exist. And it’s almost Shakespearean, the way it’s written, the juxtaposition of the graveyard scene with the Christmas morning scene. People assume: “That’s the ultimate. He doesn’t want to die.” But in reality it’s that he doesn’t want to die not having lived. That’s what he sees.
Q: Why do people keep coming to “Christmas Carol”?
Morella: It works on so many levels — the social message, it’s entertaining, it’s silly, slapstick, dark, scary and bleak. Even the way it unfolds is a kind of ritual that I think people identify with. It’s like a warm fire.
Wallace: It’s comfort food. It’s generations of a reminder of charity and compassion. When it’s done well, I think, it’s worth seeing every year. I’m renewed just by doing it.