When Richard Doyle is asked to describe in one word what it’s been like to participate in the final production of Hal Landon Jr.’s 40-year run as Ebenezer Scrooge in South Coast Repertory’s “A Christmas Carol,” the veteran SCR actor doesn’t hesitate: “Family,” said Doyle, who has acted in the show for 36 of those 40 years.
After speaking with others involved in “A Christmas Carol,” and a small cross-section of patrons who attended the two final shows Tuesday, it’s impossible to quibble with that assessment. For family is the through line that connects the cast, crew and even the front-of-the-house staff such as the volunteer ushers.
It’s why Doyle’s daughter, Sarah Doyle Chetty, stood at the open door of the dressing room with tears in her eyes on Saturday, Dec. 21, the last evening performance of this year’s run. Her “beautiful mommy tummy,” in Doyle’s words, “swollen with twin girls due in April,” and Doyle and Landon realizing that 20 years ago, Sarah had played Martha Cratchit the same year that Landon’s daughter played a role; it was also the same year that Doyle’s late former wife, Diane Doyle, directed the child cast members.
It’s why founding artistic director David Emmes and his wife, managing director Paula Tomei, were in the lobby before both of Tuesday’s shows, less in administrative and emeritus roles than as a joint welcome wagon, greeting longtime patrons and gently urging them to get to their seats (seats that Emmes and Tomei didn’t even have — “We sell the tickets, we don’t use them,” Emmes said).
It’s why Barbara and Jim Thoms have volunteered as ushers for five years. Barbara riffed on Jim’s thought as to what the future might hold for this production next year with Landon hanging up his top hat and scarf.
“Maybe it will be like ‘Hamilton’ – a rap version,” Jim said.
“I said bah, bah, bah humbug!” Barbara replies.
(Truth be told, in the 2020 season, SCR will stage the same Jerry Patch adaptation, albeit with a new director and Scrooge; 2021, however, will see a new adaptation).
But the family affair isn’t limited to the connections made by those who have been in the show (along with Landon and Doyle’s long runs, fellow founding artist Art Koustik has been in 39 productions, and nine other performers have logged at least 20).
It’s also reflected in many of the fans who, arguably, are as important as the people in the show.
Fans like the nine families who, according to SCR’s public relations director Tania Thompson, attended earlier in the run, all of them connected to a woman who began bringing her great-grandchildren to the show 35 years ago.
It’s why Anne Lanpher has attended the show on Christmas Eve for 35 years, usually with her three boys.
“It’s a family tradition, and really gets the mood of what Christmas is all about,” she said. “It’s not all about the packages. It’s not all about what you get. It’s what you give. It was always a lesson for the kids. And you can lecture kids, but this one really told it as a story (about) how someone can change, and we wanted that for our kids.”
It’s why Jan Schneider, of Santa Ana, has attended every year, first with friends and then with her children, who started coming when they were pre-schoolers.
“We used to come twice a year,” Schneider said. “First with friends and then with our kids. And then they started bringing their dates. And then my sister, who is 15 years younger, started bringing her family, and now it’s a family tradition for them as well.”
But just as few ties are as strong as family, no one knows each other more than family members. And the thought of a post-Landon “Carol” does cause consternation among some.
“We’ll probably come back. I just hope they don’t change much, that’d be my only fear,” says Ben Biloriam of San Clemente, who has attended for most of the past 10 years.
“It is sad, and it makes me a little nervous,” said Julie Godoy, of Santa Ana. “I hope it’s not too weird or funky.”
Whatever happens with the show, it’s only natural that it will be compared to the one Landon has helmed for 40 years. And speaking of Landon, what word would he choose to describe his final year?
“Grateful. For getting to play such a great part with so many wonderful actors in a play that has meant so much to so many,” the actor said.
The retirement of the family patriarch has generated a slew of emotions. Stage manager Talia Krispel described her feelings as a combination of business-as-usual, bittersweet and celebratory.
“Because many of us have been doing the show for a substantial length of time, our muscle memory takes us on the business-as-usual journey, but then we get moments where we remember it’s our last time with Hal and (director John David Keller),” Krispel says. “Everyone has been talking about it, but I think we’re all holding back our emotions. We [knew] this day would eventually come but I don’t think any of us were truly ready for it.”
The poignancy isn’t limited to Landon. While the face of the show is leaving, so is what Doyle calls its “beating pulse:” director Keller. Since so much focus has been put on Landon, it’s only fair to give Keller the last word on this remarkable 40-year run (he is retiring both from directing this show and from the theater; Landon will continue to act).
But rather than asking him for one word to describe this experience, Keller was asked a hypothetical question: If he ran into Landon right before the 4 p.m. curtain, what would he say?
He responded with three words — words that are often the easiest to say, but the hardest to feel, but that seem to underscore so much about this “Christmas Carol:” the emotions of those involved with it; the ties that bind the families that come see it; the conversion of the fictional character at its center; the reminder at the story’s heart that there is only one thing that can stave off the darkness that seems to surround us, and is within us.
And just what would the director of “A Christmas Carol” say to his leading actor before his final performance in their 40-year journey together?
“I love you.”
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].