In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens depicted his iconic Ebenezer Scrooge as the original grumpy old man - someone whose mean streak is matched only by his unyielding pockets. That he becomes a gentler man by the close of the story is no surprise to anyone who's seen the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's production of the play over the past 31 years.
Actor Gary Neal Johnson first appeared in the Rep's A Christmas Carol in 1982, double cast in two small roles. He eventually graduated to the role of Charles Dickens, who narrates the show, and now plays - as he has for over a decade - the central role of the miserly curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge.
The roots of the man's wrath
Johnson was asked to describe a character most people think they already know.
"He's a man who, like everyone else, has had hard knocks along the way, and he's had losses and disappointments and people have come in and out of his life," Johnson said. "And he's seen love, at every juncture, turn its back on him. And he in turn has turned his back on love, to the extent where he has isolated himself and shut out all traces of humanity outside his little head."
Playing with playing Scrooge
Scrooge (played by Gary Neal Johnson) is indeed an unpleasant man as the play opens: "Humbug! What's Christmas to you but a time to pay bills with no money? A time to realize that you're a year older and not an hour richer."
Johnson says one way he keeps his performances fresh is by continuously asking himself new questions about his character's demeanor.
"The question in playing Scrooge is: is he just so isolated and so within himself he just doesn't see or have regard for other people? Or has he taken an active hatred toward these people, going out of his way to be mean?
"And it's kind of one of the few things that can change in my performance from night to night - how active he is in his treatment of other people."
One might thing that, after 11 years, the actor was finding it hard to tap new resources in a part he jokingly says he could do in his sleep, you'd be mistaken.
"Even those times when it feels the same thing, it's a new journey. I wipe the slate clean and start again the next night. That's what actors do," Johnson said.
"The more I do it, the freer I come to be Scrooge and act honestly. And every actor should get the chance to play a role 11 years, because it frees you up. Some nights new things will happen, and oh, I liked that, that was effective, that worked out, so I'll put that in the repertoire."
Did Dickens write a love story?
Johnson said that, as many times as he's played Scrooge, it was just this year that he says he found previously unexplored facets of the loves Scrooge loses and attempts to regain.
"In the past people would say, 'Oh, the story's about redemption,' and yes, it is that, but that didn't always ring true to me," he said.
"Only recently - and I should be embarrassed to say - but only recently did I come to the realization that it's about the loss of love, (and) the reaction to that.
"And Scrooge is rediscovering love: the love of humanity, the love of life, and the joy that he has chosen to shut out and that he's rediscovered, and hopefully we will all rediscover. It's a story for all of us."
Johnson adds that in 2009, the one year A Christmas Carol wasn't staged in its three-plus decades, it was great to have his December back. Yet he admitted he was very happy to return to Scrooge the next year.
Funding for arts coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency