Director Aileen Wen McGroddy didn’t just want to cast a woman as Scrooge, “I wanted to cast Phyllis as Scrooge,” she says.
Phyllis Kay, who has been part of Trinity Rep’s company since 1991, has performed in the theater’s annual A Christmas Carol 16 times. But it was her performance in Tiny Beautiful Things that inspired McGroddy’s choice to cast Kay as Scrooge.
McGroddy explains in Tiny Beautiful Things, Kay’s character reads a letter from a grieving father. Kay’s performance “showed cracks through a wall of grief. There was a genuine desire to communicate through it and tell this story to an audience.” It was the moment McGroddy knew she found her Scrooge.
“It is important to go on a journey with Scrooge, to see Scrooge as a person who isn’t the embodiment of pure evil,” she explains. “Scrooge is a person who's gone through a lot of grief, who has taken on the values of a society, one that values profit over people, who has not had many meaningful connections to community and or really any other personal relationships in their life.”
Kay is not the first woman in the Trinity Rep company to tackle this role. “There were a couple of years where they cast women as Scrooge and my dad came to see it. When I asked him what he thought, he was very clear about how it was not what Dickens wrote,” Kay says. “I imprinted that opinion for a long time.”
But when McGroddy approached Kay with the idea, both their sensibilities aligned, and Kay felt like it was time to let go of that notion. “The ideas that she brought to me were so exciting; it was very easy to change my mind,” Kay recalls.
That this Christmas Carol is “enormously inclusive” also helped convince her. “It’s about making the play look like the world and asking why this group is disenfranchised,” Kay explains. “It’s a tribute to the theme Dickens wrote years ago.”
To create the script, McGroddy returned to the source material. She found an early edition with a note from Dickens, “that essentially is going, so I had this crazy idea for a Christmas story that is also a ghost story. Now, stay with me here. I know, it sounds insane,” she recalls reading his unexpected insecurity. “It was fascinating because it exists at a time before Christmas Carol. I thought, ‘Charles Dickens, you have no idea.’”
In McGroddy’s adaptation, the audience sees the world through Scrooge’s point of view. So the usual Victorian Christmas dioramas in the beginning are absent. “Scrooge doesn’t see the charm of the community or the warmth of people gathering at Christmas time. She locks a lot of the world out,” the director explains. But as the ghosts visit, and Scrooge goes through her metamorphosis, the visual world expands and evolves. “We don't get to see the complete Dickensian Christmas fantasy we love until Scrooge does.”
“It’s an absolutely unique take on the story,” adds Kay.
McGroddy began her artistic career in Chicago’s vibrant and scrappy storefront theater scene, which allows the real world to impose on the play. For example, directors incorporate rowdy voices from the bar next door into the theatrical moment. “I'm always curious about this idea that when you paint something black in a theater, it doesn't exist anymore,” she says, pointing out that the audience’s imagination is essential for theater to work. “It allows us to be as adventurous as we can on stage.” So while her Christmas Carol has one foot in Victorian England, the audience remains grounded in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater.
“Honestly, if people leave the theater going, ‘oh, well, Scrooge was a woman,’ I don't think we've done our job,” says McGroddy. “There are a lot of other things happening in terms of identity and representation, but also in terms of the artistic world of this play. This production overall makes me feel bold. We're working fearlessly and that’s really exciting.” A Christmas Carol runs November 3 - January 1, 2023 at Trinity Rep. Trinity Rep.com
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