Every December about this time, Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III slips out of the oversized top hat, frizzy wig, hawkish false nose, and garish 19th-century garb that he wears to play Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. All Wood wears to perform A Christmas Memory is a contemporary overcoat and comfortable winter clothing.
In less than 48 hours between the closing of A Christmas Carol and the opening of A Christmas Memory, David Wood undergoes a remarkable transformation, eschewing the outrageous, over-the-top antics that he employed to impersonate English novelist Charles Dickens’ misanthropic miser. Instead, Wood adopts a wistful, nostalgic mood. He effortlessly slips under the skin of celebrated novelist and irrepressible Jet Set gossip Truman Capote (1924-84) for a memorable trip down Memory Lane to the small, rural Alabama town where the future author of In Cold Blood lived with elderly distant relatives from age eight to age 10.
In a wonderful one-man show, which he adapted from Capote’s story, Wood digs deep into his actor’s bag of tricks to create crackerjack characterizations and distinctive voices and mannerisms for the adult Capote, Truman aged eight, his elderly cousin and best friend Miss Sook Faulk, and even Queenie, the feisty rat terrier who cheerfully accompanies the lonely boy and his simple-minded cousin on their picaresque adventures.
Starting in late November, the virtually penniless pair scavenge the ingredients for 30 delicious, whiskey-soaked fruitcakes for Christmas gifts to family and friends, find and chop down a Christmas tree on someone else’s back 40, create and fly homemade kites, and generally enjoy their little isolated, backwater corner of the world.
Performed on a simple rustic set, with naturalistic lighting by Christopher Johnson, a lush soundtrack by Brian Santana, and a bevy of props by Ryan Hill creating just the right atmosphere, A Christmas Memory brings out the best in David Wood as actor, director, and playwright. He gives a 24-karat, solid-gold performance so fervent, so amusing, so moving, and so vivid that, after the show, some audience members will swear that the shades of Capote and Miss Sook Faulk materialized on the Theatre in the Park stage. But that is merely the theatrical magic of a consummate actor weaving a powerful spell that carries audience members back to cherished Christmases long ago, Truman Capote’s and their own.
Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/a_christmas_memory/acm.htm [inactive 9/05]. Truman Capote (PBS “American Masters” Series): http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/capote_t.html [inactive 1/06]. Complete Text: http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/capotechristmas.html [inactive 9/05].
by Robert W. McDowell
In his heart-warming one-man show, A Christmas Memory, Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III plays the young Truman Capote (1924-84), reminiscing about his lonely childhood in a small rural Alabama town and his cherished friendship with Miss Sook Faulk, an elderly cousin with the mind of a child. Faulk, who became Capote’s best friend, had a knack for making fruitcakes as Christmas gifts for friends and family, and the preteen Capote — whom she called “Buddy,” in honor or her previous best friend who died in the 1880s — helped her scour the neighborhood for all the necessary ingredients — including moonshine! — that made those fruitcakes so delicious.
David Wood is, perhaps, best known for hamming it up, with slumped shoulders and a bowlegged rubbery walk, as that misanthropic old miser Ebenezer Scrooge in TIP’s uproarious musical-comedy version of A Christmas Carol, which Wood adapted from English novelist Charles Dickens’ 1843 story. So, his poignant portrayal of Truman Capote, finally coming to grips with sweet and bitter memories of his childhood friend, is a revelation for Triangle theatergoers who think that there is no enough mustard or a big enough bun to accommodate “Scrooge.”
“Someone gave me a copy of [A Christmas Memory] almost 30 years ago, Wood recalls. “As Christmas Day wound down, I stretched out on my sofa, picked up the little book and began to read. When I finished, I couldn’t move. In the span of about 20 minutes, Truman Capote had managed to pluck at every single one of my heartstrings. I knew instantly that I wanted to transpose his work for the stage.
“So,” Wood adds, “I contacted some literary friends of mine in New York. After a bit of detective work, I managed to get a telephone number for Mr. Capote in New York. I called the number, and he picked up the phone.
“We had a wonderful conversation,” Wood says. “I told him that I wanted to do the work as a one-man show for the stage. He asked if I planned to rewrite it and, of course, I said no. I told him that his words were incredible and I wanted to perform it exactly as written. I told him my ideas for the set — and how I wanted to stage it — and he seemed delightfully excited about the concept. He gave me permission to do the work on the spot.”
Wood sighs, “[Truman Capote] never got to see the production, but I did correspond with him for several years — and let him know how well it had been received.”
For some local theatergoers, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a trip to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium to see A Christmas Carol. For others, a trip to Theatre in the Park to see A Christmas Memory is a necessary adjunct.
After playing Scrooge at warp speed, how does David Wood find the stamina to play Capote?
“The role in A Christmas Memory is actually a great treat after the physical demands of doing Scrooge,” Wood admits. “Doing A Christmas Carolis like playing a Super Bowl game. Doing A Christmas Memory is like taking a quiet walk in beautiful winter woods. The physical and emotional fatigue that is always a holdover from doing Scrooge is actually a benefit when I walk into A Christmas Memory. Feelings and emotions are just beneath the surface, so the weariness actually works as a positive force for me in the show.
“I believe it’s something we all experience during the holiday season,” Wood adds. “It’s a tiring time. We look forward to those quiet moments when we can sit back and soak it all in. Our audience members are treated to fruitcake and hot cider before the show. That’s another way to help bring them into the proper mood. Christmas is not just something we see. We taste it and smell it and touch it and hear it. It engulfs our entire being — and rightly so.”
In looking back at more than two decades of performances of A Christmas Memory, Wood says, “Childhood is further away now. My own Christmas memories have become tinged with deeper hues. They are more precious to me with each passing year. I believe that fact has added a deeper dimension to the character I portray. He’s still a drifter who comes home during the holidays. Suitcase in hand, he stands in the doorway of a deserted farmhouse and takes the audience on a special and heartfelt journey.
“ A Christmas Memory always has been the same thing for me: a gift to myself,” Wood confesses. “[It is] a private journey, in a way — and yet so very public. It’s never been a show that I’ve had to ‘act.’ It’s always been a matter of walking onto the stage and simply feeling the moment.”
Wood claims, “The wonderful thing about the work is that it becomes something very personal to each audience member. We all have a special Christmas locked away in our hearts — complete with close friends, pets, sights, and smells of the season. The story is merely a key we use to unlock the door that takes us back to our own past.
“I’ve always felt it was important to do it as a one-man show,” Wood says. “I believe it’s vital for each audience member to picture the supporting cast in their own way. ‘Buddy’s’ cousin is obviously never onstage, but the audience still sees her. They give her a size, shape, and detailed features. I’ve actually had people tell me they could swear she was there ... along with Queenie, the little dog.
“In that way, the audience members become active participants — and that adds a resonance to the work that makes it uniquely special,” Wood says.
He adds, “I’ve never taken a curtain call after this play. I’ve always felt it was just out of place. I walk off and the lights go down as the music fades. I have a little hiding spot I go to that overlooks the stage. My joy for almost 30 years has been to watch the audience after each performance. They’ve always been invited to browse the set — which is filled with little antique props you’d find in any old farmhouse.
“I enjoy seeing them silently stroll around the set — touching this thing or that. Some people simply remain seated for a while — choosing not to move or speak. Many are drying their eyes and sharing hugs with each other. It’s takes a few minutes to come back to the present after this show; it’s just that powerful.
“That sight of the audience members adjusting after the show has always been a wonderful gift to me and, I hope, to its author and the marvelous work itself. It definitely proves the old adage that the best Christmas gifts of all sometimes come in small, unassuming packages,” says David Wood.
Note: The 10 p.m. Dec. 17th performance will be a fundraiser for the Crape Myrtle Festival, which is an all-volunteer nonprofit group that has raised more than $1 million for Triangle organizations combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and dealing with other public health crises. The festival will hold its 25th annual Crape Myrtle Gala on July 30, 2005. For more information about the Crape Myrtle Festival, visit http://www.crapemyrtlefest.org/index.html [inactive 3/05].
Theatre in the Park presents A Christmas Memory Friday, Dec. 17, at 8 and 10 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 19, 3 and 8 p.m. in The Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 ($10 TIP season members). 919/831-6058. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/a_christmas_memory/acm.htm [inactive 9/05]. Truman Capote (PBS “American Masters” Series): http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/capote_t.html [inactive 1/06]. Complete Text: http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/capotechristmas.html [inactive 9/05].