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Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III is justly famous for his outrageous over-the-top antics during his annual performance as 19th-century English novelist Charles Dickens' misanthropic old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. But this crackerjack comic characterization — the centerpiece and main attraction of Wood's own madcap musical version of A Christmas Carol for the past 29 years — may not be Wood's best performance of each and every year. That honor may well belong to his poignant portrayal of American novelist Truman Capote (1924-84) — reliving the happiest chapter in his unhappy early childhood — in A Christmas Memory.
For a quarter of a century, Wood has doffed the false nose and heavy makeup, the big top hat, and the 19th century costumes that he wears as Scrooge, and donned a simple overcoat, sports jacket, and slacks to perform his heart-tugging recitation of A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote's touching tribute to the elderly cousin who befriended him as a poor abandoned 10 year old; taught him to make and fly homemade kites; and involved him, for several years, in her annual epic scavenger hunt for the prize ingredients — including moonshine — necessary to make her famous fruitcake.
"Until he was 10 years old," writes David Wood, "Truman Capote lived with a family of distant and elderly cousins in a small town in rural Alabama. A Christmas Memory is a frankly autobiographical story about those years, and especially of his relationship with one of the cousins, Miss Sook Faulk. [She] died in 1938 while Mr. Capote was a student at a military academy in New York State."
Wood adds, "One Christmas, well over 20 years ago, a friend gave me A Christmas Memory as a holiday gift. When the noise and commotion subsided on Christmas Day afternoon, I stretched out on my sofa and read the book. I knew immediately that I wanted to stage it as a one-man presentation.
A Christmas Memory started out as a private reading for members of the cast of A Christmas Carol, Wood recalls. "But the moment I read it," he confesses, "I knew I wanted to do it as a one-man show. It's presented just as Truman Capote wrote it.
"When I spoke to Truman Capote about doing it," Wood recalls, "I think that's what appealed to him. Adapting it for the stage only involved putting it into what I feel is the proper setting — a set that represents a closed-up farmhouse. The lighting is 'pooled light,' creating illumination for specific playing areas... as if lit by the single candle I hold during the show."
Wood notes, "I've been performing [A Christmas Memory] now for many years. But I have to confess that this show is as much a gift to myself as to [the audience]. It quite literally prepares me for the holidays."
He adds, "Though it's a one-man show, I'm delighted to hear that members of the audience can actually 'see' the other characters in the piece. It's honestly as if they are onstage with me.
"Serving fruitcake and apple cider prior to the performance seems to help put people in the proper mood to experience the work," he claims.
Wood admits, "After the rigors of A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Memory is a delight to go into. It's something you don't have to 'act.' You have to simply allow the emotions to happen to you. That goes for the audience, too. It does hit every 'heartstring' you have.
"Members of my board of directors have jokingly asked to have the 'Kleenex concession' in the lobby!" Wood sniffs.
"I do think that if you allow yourself to be captured by the story," he adds, "you do leave the theater feeling better about the holidays. Laughter and tears are cleansing — and all of us need to 'blow a little carbon out of the pipes' before we enter the holidays.
"By touching the Past, we are better able to embrace the Present," Wood claims. "I believe that's the true magic of Truman Capote's wonderful gift."
David Wood says, "There is no curtain call. I've never thought the work needed that bit of added theatricality. I simply allow the audience to stroll around the set. It's a true delight to see how many people linger after the performance. They take their own time to say their own 'good-byes' to the people they've come to know for an hour in the dark.
"They've also somehow touched their own memories of childhood," Wood believes, "and it often takes a bit of time to come back to the Present from such a 'visit.' I've always viewed it as a real seasonal 'healing.' That's something we all need... especially during this time of year."
Theatre in the Park presents A Christmas Memory Friday-Saturday, Dec. 19-20, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 21, at 3 and 8 p.m. at TIP, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 ($10 TIP season members), with special discounts for groups of 25 or more. 919/831-6058. NOTE: To create just the right mood, TIP will serve hot cider, cookies, and fruitcake in the lobby, starting 30 minutes before each performance. TIP: http://theatreinthepark.com/a_christmas_memory/page_a_christmas_memory.html [inactive 3/04] . Ira David Wood III: http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/frame_ira_david_wood_iii.html [inactive 3/04] . Truman Capote: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/capote.htm and http://www.levity.com/corduroy/capote.htm [inactive 10/04]. Truman Capote: A Black and White Tribute: http://ansoniadesign.com/capote/index.htm. A Christmas Memory (Complete Text): http://computerlab.tripod.com/AChristmasMemory.doc [inactive 10/04]. [Note: REQUIRES CURRENT BROWSER. If this last url griefs, go to http://computerlab.tripod.com/capote.htm [inactive 10/04] and then click on "MS Word Document" to call up the text. This, too, requires a CURRENT BROWSER.]