It’s that time again when we look to Dickens’ classic tale of redemption — and hope that all the Scrooges of our world will find a glimmer of goodness in their hearts and maybe even sell their corporate jets and fly coach with the rest of us.
With this year’s production of “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter Theater, we meet a new Scrooge — Irish actor Dermot Crowley, who brings a fresh look at the bah humbug man, having never before played the role or even seen a production of “A Christmas Carol.”
In his native Cork, says Crowley, whom McCarter audiences may remember from the October, 2006, “Translations,” holiday events were generally pantomimes, holiday stage frolics related to the tradition of commedia del arte. They were often based on the usual fairy tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Cinderella” and featured stock characters. Crowley says they usually have a contemporary spin, with jokes about current television programs and often have guest stars from TV. “It’s refreshing that ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a relatively pure Dickens story, set firmly in its time,” says Crowley in a phone interview. “There are no references to modern life though parallels abound.”
He is quick to point out, though, that, unfortunately, as in Dickens’s time, there is still an enormous amount of poverty in the world. “Small children still work in Sri Lanka and China making tee shirts for all of us. We may feel that Victorian England is far away, but I don’t think it is.” Then he easily condenses the well-known story of “A Christmas Carol”: “Man has a cold heart. He takes a journey of redemption and makes the world a better place — a simple story. And that’s what makes it so relevant.”
In McCarter’s production of Brian Friel’s “Translations,” we met Crowley as Jimmy Jack, an eccentric guy who regales everyone with stories in Greek and Latin while everyone else is haggling about Erse. The production later moved to Manhattan Theater Club in New York. Crowley’s earlier New York theater appearances included “The Weir” in 1999 and “Dealer’s Choice” in 1997.
As rehearsals began for “A Christmas Carol,” Crowley found himself happy to be back in Princeton. “Though it’s been around two years since I was here, it’s as if with a pass of a magic wand, the intervening months just disappeared.” He knows where to go for his favorite coffee shop, Small World Coffee, or where to pick up a delicious sandwich — at the Witherspoon Bakery. “I have a shorthand with the town and that makes it easier so that I can focus on preparation for the play.”
Most of his acting career has been on the stage in London and in films. His decision to become an actor took place at the ridiculously early age of four when he had been cast in a school play. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously, he contracted a childhood disease, “maybe chicken pox,” and was withdrawn from the cast. He remembers going to see the play and “being incandescent with rage that I wasn’t on the stage.” He had decided then and there that he would be an actor.
Throughout what we would term high school, he was in plays, but none of this was taken seriously by his parents. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a hair dresser, both had more “noteworthy” goals for their only child. So Crowley went to University College Cork and earned a degree in English Literature in preparation for becoming a teacher, something his parents found acceptable.
From his current vantage point, he admits that they were right. “It’s a very difficult profession to be in. I tell young actors: if there’s anything else you can do at all with your life, go and do it. The only reason to become an actor is if you have a need in you and acting is the only thing that will satisfy it. I believe it’s a vocation in the old-fashioned meaning of the word: a ‘calling.’” Then he quickly adds, “Having said what I’ve said, there is nothing else on God’s earth that I’d want to be doing. And I’ve been lucky and have been acting a long time now.”
His early stage work began at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. When the theater’s lauded 1980 production of “Juno and the Paycock” with Siobhan McKenna and Crowley traveled to London, this began an impressive stage career for the actor. “I kind of never went back to Ireland,” he says — except in 1977, when he appeared in a movie called “Falling for a Dancer,” filmed on location on the Beara Peninsula in Ireland’s far South West. He fell in love with the town and landscape in Eyeries, 80 miles from Cork Airport. He and his wife, Suzanne, a theatrical casting agent, purchased a house there, where they retreat for holidays between his worldwide travels in plays and films. He says, “I’m always on the move and work a lot in America.”
During the 1970s, he worked on stage in England and Scotland, ending up at London’s National Theater, where he appeared in a number of plays including “Amadeus” with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow and “Macbeth” with Albert Finney. “This was wonderfully lucky for a youngish actor to be in that kind of company and learn from those extraordinary actors. In addition, good directors there knocked the corners off cocky young actors like me, and I polished my craft standing in the wings and watching. It was a master class for free. When I was dreaming in my bedroom in Cork of being an actor one day, I never in my dreams thought that I’d be so lucky as to be on the same stage with these actors.”
But still in his teens, he found his inspiration at the movie theater, watching actors he particularly admired: Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Humphrey Bogart. This probably provided him with a balance between the styles of Ireland, London, and the United States.
Being an Irishman at heart, and thus a storyteller, he had a story to tell about the first time he saw his idol Laurence Olivier on stage. Nearing the end of the run of his first London production, “Juno,” Crowley noticed that just after his play closed, a production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” starring Olivier would be playing another two weeks. “I bought the most expensive seat that I could, in the center stalls, in row G. I arrived at the theater early, bought a program, and settled in, but did notice a single seat to my left. Ten minutes before the curtain, the usher came toward me and asked to see my ticket and reported ‘This was for last night’s performance.’ Absolutely devastated, I told him, “‘I’ve got to see this.’” Finally the house manager told him he could stand at the back of the stalls. “I thought, oh, dear, four hours. But the hours flew by. It was memorable.”
Among a long list of film credits, he notes as a favorite “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” directed by Robert Redford and filmed on location in South Carolina and Georgia. “I’ve been an actor for such a long time and worked with a lot of good people so I’m not so star struck. But when I met Redford for the first time, my heart skipped a beat.” When Crowley’s wife joined him at the location shoot, he tells of Redford’s gallantry toward her. “Redford was wearing a hat. It was very hot. I introduced my wife. And he actually doffed his hat and gave a little bow — gentlemanly in the best sense of the word.”
Crowley’s higher profile films include the Bond classic “Octopussy,” the 2006 Golden Globe Best Picture winner “Babel,” and “The Return of the Jedi.” Yes, that one, “Star Wars Episode VI.” According a blog on the McCarter Theater website posted by Adam Immerwahr (producing associate at McCarter), “Crowley was General Modine, the Alliance officer who announces that the rebels have captured the Imperial Shuttle that will go to the forest moon of Endor to destroy the shield generator that protects the second Death Star.” He adds, “Of course, the exciting thing about this is that it means there are Dermot Crowley action figures.” This, he thinks, sets the current Scrooge apart from “all the other venerable actors who have played the role.” For Crowley, however, working on “Star Wars” was just a job. “I had no idea I’d be talking to anyone about it 25 years later.”
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Through Sunday, December 28. Holiday classic by Charles Dickens with Irish actor Dermot Crowley as Scrooge. $32 to $55. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.