“Old Withered Dude” Offers Holiday Hope
Surgical glue secures his gray wig from temple to temple, impervious to his sweating under the stage lights during a two-hour performance. A mic cord hides in the wig, pinned and clamped to other elements of his stiff, Victorian-era costume. No wonder Scrooge is crabby.
But how does he transform from miserable miser to fun-loving philanthropist? The role is more than skin deep for actor J.C. Cutler, who stars in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” He believes it’s a meaningful metaphor and message for the holiday season.
Iconic Role. “Although it’s a grueling, grueling run, I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get to do it again,” comments Cutler, currently in his fifth year as the Guthrie’s Scrooge. When this seven-week run ends, he will have performed over 300 times since 2011, for audiences totaling over 350,000. Each of nine weekly performances is physically demanding: Cutler only leaves the stage once for a quick water break during the Fezziwig dance.
Five years ago Cutler was 51; he says the Scrooge role came at a good time for him. “I was at a time in my life, and in a lot of men’s lives, when you look back and think, could I have done things differently?”
He shares the sentiments of those who consider Scrooge an iconic stage role like Hamlet or King Lear. “The vast, emotional journey Scrooge faces… to play that honestly and deeply is huge,” he adds.
“In Dickens’ book, Scrooge is described as ‘solitary as an oyster’ — he’s shut out the whole world,” explains Cutler. “By the end he arrives at a place of complete spiritual liberation; it’s one of the great joys of acting that role.”
Contemporary Twist. This contemporary staging is funnier and lighter than some, yet it demonstrates deep human knowledge.
“Today we understand the psychology behind Scrooge’s redemptive journey, but Dickens tapped into this over 170 years ago,” notes Cutler. “To make true, lasting changes in their lives, people first need to see how they were emotionally damaged as children.”
In the play, young Ebenezer is bullied at school and abandoned by his parents. He’s always alone. Later, he falls in love with Belle but greed consumes his heart and she leaves him. Scrooge eventually turns away from everyone; when his business partner Marley dies, Scrooge is determined to live alone until the end. But by the play’s finale, Scrooge makes amends – apologizing and showing he’s a changed man.
“I treat every single performance as a life or death journey,” says Cutler. “I fight my way to the last scene when he’s dancing in the streets, free from everything that’s chained him down.”
Time to Change. Cutler appreciates the character’s vigor and dynamism in this production, different from the depictions of Scrooge in many book illustrations as “an old withered dude” with seemingly one foot in the grave.
“After his redemption, he’s young enough to change and become a man of the world – a businessman and benefactor, maybe even a husband,” explains Cutler. “The audience is challenged: there’s still time in your life to make the changes you want, to make a difference in the world. People come to hear that message at Christmas.”
The story’s timeless appeal means the audience often includes multiple generations, unlike many Guthrie productions aimed at adults. “It’s very exciting to perform for such a diverse audience,” says Cutler. “The grandchild and grandparent are getting very different experiences.”
Privileged Part. Even after five years of “Bah, Humbug!” Cutler is not concerned about being typecast, nor does he mind sweating beneath his costume and glued-on wig.
“I play one of the greatest roles ever written at one of the greatest theaters in the country…why would I ever turn down that amazing privilege?” he concludes. “In the Guthrie’s 41 productions, I’ve played Scrooge five times. I consider it a wonderful honor.”