Each year for nearly a quarter of a century now, after gleefully hamming it up as English novelist Charles Dickens' misanthropic old miser Ebenezer Scrooge in his own madcap musical version of A Christmas Carol, Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III takes a couple of days off, then hits the boards again with A Christmas Memory, a poignant one-man show dramatizing the halcyon childhood days when celebrated novelist and world-famous gossip Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and his 60ish simple-minded cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, cheerfully gathered ingredients for her famous Christmas fruitcakes.
"A friend gave me the book one Christmas long ago" David Wood recalls. "I waited until late Christmas Day afternoon to read it while I was kicked back on the sofa. When I finished the book, I couldn't get up. It was just that powerful."
Now he admits, "I knew, the instant I it, that it would translate into a beautiful one-man show. I read it to the cast of A Christmas Carol that year during our cast party. They all reacted just as I hoped they would. It confirmed my belief in the concept of doing it as a one-man show.
"Eventually," Wood remembers, "I tracked Capote down — through friends in NYC — and reached him at a number in the Hamptons. I talked to him about my concept, and he thought it was a marvelous idea. No one had done it as a one-man show. We had a wonderfully warm visit via phone. He gave me his permission there and then. That was over two decades ago, and I've been doing it ever since."
Wood adds, "After the physical demands of A Christmas Carol, this production is a joy to undertake. Unlike Scrooge, I don't sit at my dressing table having to strap on two back braces, an elbow brace, and shin pads. I simply put on casual clothes and walk onstage. It's a role you don't have to 'act.' You only have to commit to the moment and the memories.
"Naturally," Wood says, "I have my own personal memories — and call upon them to help me get closer to the various feelings and moods of the piece. But, the beauty of the work is that it becomes personal for each member of the audience. Sook, Capote's elderly cousin, is not a real person onstage — and yet every single person in the audience 'sees' her there. That's the special magic they bring to the experience. I'm just a catalyst — allowing each audience member to insert their own personal memories whenever they wish. It's really very unique and powerful because of that."
A Christmas Memory, Wood notes, "is a frankly autobiographical account of eight-year-old Truman Capote's last Christmas spent with his closest childhood friend, an elderly and slightly retarded cousin named Sook Faulk. It's set during the Depression — and carries them through the preparations for Christmas... decorating the farm house, baking fruitcakes, making homemade ornaments for the tree, and fashioning gifts for each other.
"It begins," Wood says, "as the Narrator returns to the old boarded up farm house. He speaks directly to the audience — recalling his special Christmas memory with his wonderful friend. It is incredibly powerful in its sheer simplicity."
After outrageously cutting the fool in A Christmas Carol in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Wood eagerly anticipates performing in A Christmas Memory at Theatre in the Park. "In this case," he says, "less is more. The production is simple and direct. Fruitcake and hot cider are served prior to the show in order to help audience members get into the 'mood.' The challenge of the acting is to keep it simple and real — to remain vulnerable to my own emotions. Capote has done the work so brilliantly that you simply have to let it lead you to all the right moments."
Wood, who doubles as director and star of A Christmas Memory, also serves as the show's set and costume designer. Lighting designer Chris Johnson and sound designer Brian Santanna help Wood bring Truman Capote's precious long-ago Christmas memories to life.
"All of us have our special and very personal Christmas memories," claims David Wood. "They are attached to times and people in our lives... times and people who have become memories themselves. There is an undeniable need, particularly during the holidays, to connect with the Past... and those times and people we've loved. Capote wrote a brilliant story. He manages to hit every heartstring we have. We laugh at the antics of 'Buddy' [Capote] and his friend... but, inevitably, we are moved to healing tears by the story's conclusion. We've been allowed to go back and touch those special moments in our own lives."
Theatre in the Park presents A Christmas Memory Friday, Dec. 20, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 21, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 22, at 3 and 8 p.m. at Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, NC. $18 ($12 students, seniors and military personnel). $12 ($10 TIP season members). 919/831-6058. http://theatreinthepark.com/independents/xmasmemory.htm .