There's a tender scene in Ira David Wood III's musical-comedy adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the flagship production of Raleigh's Theatre in the Park. The ghost of Christmas present takes Ebenezer Scrooge into the home of Bob Cratchit while he sings a lullaby to his son, Tiny Tim, as he readies him for bed.
Cratchit sings, "One day my son, when you're grown, you will remember all the happy times you and your dad have known, and on the day that you do, you will know somehow I am remembering too, all my happy times with you."
It was the last song Wood wrote for the production, a festive yet emotional Christmas ritual that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, running at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium and DPAC throughout December. It's poignant for Wood because the last time he saw his own father was while being tucked in at age 12, the night before his dad passed away.
"It's a tough scene for me to watch because that's my dad, and that's me laying in that bed," Wood says. "I wrote the lullaby because it was the words that I never got to hear from him. And it's also the words that any parent would want to say to their child."
Wood, Theatre in the Park's Executive Director and proprietor of the role of Scrooge, did in fact sing this loving tune to his own children, actors Evan Rachel Wood and Ira David Wood IV, who have also performed in the show.
"Christmas is really a bittersweet time," Wood says. "We are too busy living the present, we don't have a claim on the future, so when we think of Christmas, it is usually Christmas past." But this Broadway-style production, which has toured internationally and features almost 100 cast members, isn't all sentimental nostalgia—far from it. Wood revises the comedic aspects of his Dickens adaptation each season, incorporating references to current events, adding topical slapstick humor à la The Carol Burnett Show and even diving into controversies. Wood recalls adding one particularly scandalous cameo in the mid-'90s.
"There's a scene in which Bob Cratchit asks for the day off, and I [as Scrooge] am quoting right from the book, and I shuffle papers on my desk," Wood explains. "I say 'Oh yes, where was I?' That year, a woman's hand comes out from under the desk, from between my legs, and hands them over to me, and I look down and say, 'Thank you, Monica.' The place would not shut up for four minutes!"
So what does Wood have in store for this year's special anniversary run? He will not shy away from risqué headlines such as the ones about a formerly beloved sitcom dad and our nation's recent bout of disease hysteria (if there's any shock and awe, Wood defuses it with the simple statement, "Too soon?"). And in the show's long history, random occurrences have been known to take place. There have been four marriage proposals on stage, and one cast member actually got married (Wood was a flower "girl"). And of course, there have been countless of unscripted bursts of laughter.
As this show has become an annual tradition for many families, it has also become a rite of passage for many actors, and there are some that have been in the show for years. David Henderson, who plays Jacob Marley, has been in the production for two decades.
"A Christmas Carol has been with me through a lot of major life changes, and for that, I am grateful," Henderson says. "Every time we hit that stage, there are people in the audience that need to hear the story. I look forward to telling it with David and the cast, and putting a little Christmas in the hearts of all the people that see the show."
Wood has never missed a show—sort of. A week before the 2010 production was scheduled to open, doctors found that he had a bad aortic valve. The heart specialist urged immediate surgery. Wood thought of the only person who could replace him, someone who knew the role by heart—his son, Ira.
"When he came in, I said, 'Hi, Mr. Scrooge,'" Wood recalls. "The color drained from his face."
Wood still had a short cameo that year in which he and his son passed each other on stage. "That was an incredible sensation," Wood says. "It was as though I was looking at myself, because he wearing the wig, the nose and the costume." Ira, who has played various roles (this year, he's The Lamp Lighter) has told his father that, someday, he would like to take over the role of Scrooge permanently.
"That year, I knew the show would outlast me," Wood says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The 40 years of Christmas"