‘Wait a minute, I’m too young to play Scrooge,” says actor Greg Wood. He’s recalling his reaction to director Adam Immerwahr’s invitation to play Ebenezer Scrooge in McCarter Theater’s new and re-imagined production of “A Christmas Carol” — one that brings Dickens’ old world alive with today’s technology.
Continues Wood: “Then I began growing my beard for the part, and there it was — pure white. My protests were refuted by my own whiskers. Now I wonder if Santa is lurking in my future.”
Playing Dickens’ ghost-reformed curmudgeon caps off an interesting and varied year for Wood. He has appeared at Philadelphia’s Walnut Theater as both a phony who invents an exotic adventure that captures the English public’s imagination (“Shipwrecked”) and the charlatan head of a sanitarium (“Harvey”). At InterAct, also in Philadelphia, he played the role of a man who helps others indulge in virtual pedophilia (“The Nether”).
At the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival he was Cassius in “Julius Caesar.” At the Arden he was the lone selfless and empathetic member of a Russian family in “Stupid F-ing Bird.” And at Trenton’s Passage Theater he was the edgy “White Guy on the Bus,” in which he performed with his wife, Susan Riley Stevens.
In each role the actor demonstrated a knack for transforming himself while maintaining a rational Everyman quality that is part of his general persona — qualities that he now brings to McCarter.
“Scrooge is as complex as any of these characters,” says Wood. “Our first thoughts are he’s old, bitter, and mean-spirited. (Yet) once you study Dickens and the script and see all Scrooge experiences, these impressions change. In present tense, he’s old, but the ghosts, and the play, take him into his past. You have to play a range of ages and a range of moods and attitudes. Scrooge, like any character, develops into who he is. His longevity tells you that all his experiences shape who he is, and that he can change. He can be hardened and enlightened. He has time, is given time, to see and approach his life in different ways.
“I like conveying some of his more playful aspects and playing a man who goes through several phases in his life. A lot of vitality goes into that, especially when the Spirit of Christmas makes Scrooge younger. This is a story of redemption, which I think explains ‘A Christmas Carol’s’ longevity.”
“The joy of renewal suffuses ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and there’s joy in re-approaching and refreshing it,” says Adam Immerwahr, charged with re-creating the story for McCarter. “From a theatrical point of view, the challenge is to figure out how to create a world that moves from now to the past, then back to the present, then to the future, and once again to the present.”
Wood and Immerwahr grew up within miles of each other outside of Philadelphia, but they came to the theater by different routes. “I went to the theater for a specific purpose, a practical purpose,” Wood says, “and in the course of attaining it, I became an actor.”
Wood’s practical objective was to become a better public speaker. A native of Aston, Pennsylvania, he is the son of a draftsman/engineer father and a Neumann College executive secretary mother. And while he had attained a business degree from nearby Widener University, he had no confidence speaking. “Or knowing what to do with my hands,” he says.
Wood decided the place to learn about speaking and becoming more comfortable in front of the audience was the theater. He tapped another local institution, the Hedgerow Theater, famous as one of the first major local theaters in the United States, to get instruction.
“What I learned is how much I liked acting and all of the side business that goes along with putting on a play,” Wood says. “I never thought I was good enough to pursue acting as a living, but one of the teachers at Hedgerow, Dolores Tanner, had a different idea. She saw something in me and encouraged me. She asked me to join the company, which meant living at Hedgerow and doing all kinds of jobs to get a production going and keep an old house in shape. I had nothing else going, so I said yes. Even $30 a week was preferable to unemployment.
“I remember the exact moment when I realized I was no longer a student playing at being an actor but a bona fide performer,” Wood says. “It was at Hedgerow. I had this scene (in “Candida”) that required an outburst that was different from any reaction I would ever have. But it made no difference. That scene arrived, and I was no longer myself living my life and behaving as I would. I was able to unloose myself in ways I didn’t expect. I was conscious of doing it, but that just made me adhere more to my character.
“I never believed I could do anything like that. Letting go as I did proved to me I was an actor and could be an actor. I saw on that occasion what I wanted to do and what I would do for the rest of my life.”
Wood says he approaches his career one production at a time, adding he’s lucky there was so often a next production to replace the one he was in. He is also known to film audiences as the father who is so silently but deeply affected by his son’s death in M. Night’s Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.”
Wood’s current busy year reflects almost 40 years of constant activity, mostly in the Philadelphia area, but also in other regions. He met his wife when they performed together in Portland, Maine. He coaxed her to come to the Philadelphia area. The couple lives in Merchantville, a New Jersey town outside Philadelphia, with their 8-year-old daughter. Wood also has an older daughter, Alex, age 28, and a grandson.
Immerwahr had the stage thrust upon him. His mother, Teya Sepinuck is a theater artist who has her own company, Theatre of Witness, and his father’s friend and fellow professor at Villanova, Jim Christy, volunteered Adam for juvenile parts when Villanova productions required them. “I went on stage and caught the bug,” Immerwahr says.
And while he took to the stage like a natural, acting did not fascinate him as much as solving logistical problems, such as having to arrange actors’ exits and entrances and moving scenery. “I loved coming up with solutions to stage situations,” he says. “How the play got made interested me more than performing. One thing was clear, I had breathed stage dust, and it was going to be part of my life forever, but as a director, not as an actor.”
Immerwahr’s year was as productive as Wood’s. He directed a production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” for McCarter than made the chestnut that’s been playing in London for 64 consecutive years into a new and exciting piece. He has also done significant work at Trenton’s Passage Theater and made the most of a troubled piece, “The Language Archive” at Bristol Riverside Theater, where he elicited affecting performances from his cast.
Last year Immerwahr, a staple figure in New Jersey theater, left the area for Washington, D.C., to accept the artistic director post at Theater J, the largest Jewish theater in the U.S.
But now it is about the new “A Christmas Carol,” and says Immerwahr, “It is an incredible piece of writing in which we see a man change and, just as importantly, see how a community changes because this man has such an effect on his community.”
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, December 9, to Saturday, December 31. $25 to $94. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.