Analyzing Ebenezer: ‘A Christmas Carol’ Actor David de Vries on the Enduring Appeal of the Dickens Classic
Editor’s Note: Throughout the month, Eldredge ATL December Guest Editor David de Vries will spotlight some of his favorite Atlantans, along with discussing his roles in two big projects this month, playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre’s annual staging of “A Christmas Carol” and portraying AJC editor John Walter in director Clint Eastwood’s shot-in-Atlanta drama “Richard Jewell.”
If you’re David de Vries, the enduring spirit of Charles Dickens’ immortal holiday classic “A Christmas Carol” can visit even in the middle of a sweltering summer evening while at home watching the Atlanta Braves on TV. The Atlanta actor, who is portraying Ebenezer Scrooge for the sixth year in this year’s 30th anniversary production of the holiday tradition at the Alliance Theatre, paused the ball game last summer to take a call from a friend. Might he consider having a drink at the Ansley Golf Club with some fans of his work?
When he arrived, de Vries discovered he was considered a celebrity of sorts to the gathered, all annual Alliance “A Christmas Carol” ticket holders. “They treated me like royalty,” recalls de Vries with a chuckle. “The crown doesn’t quite fit. But I was happy to spend time with them and learn how much the show means to them and their family. It’s a holiday tradition that they’ve now passed down to their kids. It’s become part of their association with spending the holidays in Atlanta.”
The interaction between actor and theatregoers speaks volumes about why, even three decades into its run at the Alliance, the Dickens holiday tale continues to pack in audiences during its lengthy six-week run, just like the city’s other yuletide workhorses, the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and The Center of Puppetry Arts’ presentation of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
For de Vries, portraying Dickens’ eccentric, isolated miser is one of the greatest honors of an already highly accomplished acting career. On stage, he’s spoken the words of Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein and John Cheever. De Vries has given spark multiple times to Lumiere in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway, in Canada and on two national tours. He’s spent three years in the Tony winning “Wicked” in Los Angeles, Chicago and two national tours.
In Atlanta, de Vries has directed friends Tom Key at Theatrical Outfit and Mary Lynn Owen at the Alliance and appeared in the feature films “Captain America Civil War,” “The Founder” and the upcoming Clint Eastwood-directed drama “Richard Jewell.”
But slipping into Ebenezer Scrooge’s pajamas and robe each holiday season for up to 10 performances a week keeps de Vries busy, both executing the role and analyzing one of literature’s most enduring and fascinating characters.
“As an actor, it’s simply one of the great parts,” says de Vries. “I first approached Scrooge as an emotional anorexic, someone who has deep hurt within him. There’s a sort of self-imposed punishment there. He finds solace in figures and numbers. As an actor, you can kind of concoct that story. The trick with doing this role over and over again is trying to figure out the character’s thoughts, perceptions and motivations in any given moment.”
Each year, de Vries says he plumbs new depths with Scrooge. This year, for instance, he’s focused on the evolution of Scrooge’s relationship with Tiny Tim, the sickly youngest son of his clerk Bob Cratchit. “With Tiny Tim, something just clicks within Scrooge,” he explains. “I never really realized that until this year. It becomes a real motivator for him in the future sequence. When Scrooge realizes the future can be altered if behavior is changed, the death of Tiny Tim hits him like a ton of bricks, almost more, or at least with equal measure, to his own mortality. When you play a character this long, these are the things that present themselves to you, sometimes unexpectedly.”
De Vries also credits David H. Bell’s thoughtful Alliance Theatre adaptation that, unlike other versions of “A Christmas Carol,” doesn’t gloss over Ebenezer’s potent backstory in favor of presenting a hammy cartoon villain. Through a series of flashbacks, theatregoers witness how Scrooge ended up in his current state.
“Scrooge was kind of raised in this scarcity universe,” says de Vries. “My parents were part of the Depression era and they carried that scarcity mentality with them and it informed the rest of their lives. And that’s how Ebenezer grew up. Scrooge’s world was restrictive, loveless, poor and always kind of in deficit, both financially and emotionally. As the actor playing the role, when you have to watch this over and over again and see how his heart is absolutely broken, it affects you. You get to see his engagement to Belle. He was a vibrant, happy young man with prospects and love and aspirations. And then to watch him transform into this bitter old person is just heartbreaking for me.”
Whether you’re a first timer at an Alliance performance of “A Christmas Carol” or return each holiday season, de Vries says to keep your eye on a certain engagement ring if you want to fully understand Ebenezer Scrooge. “Late in the show, that ring makes a return appearance,” says de Vries. “It’s incredibly significant, and for me, one of the most powerful parts of the play if you’re trying to understand this man and his motivations and actions.”
While de Vries concedes that “it can be kind of sociopathically cool to surgically dissect Scrooge’s victims” at the top of the play, as an actor, he says he finds the finish of “A Christmas Carol” the bigger challenge each night. “The old adage in acting class is anger is the easiest emotion to play. In terms of ease, the beginning of the play is easier. I can be a crank and a Scrooge with the best of them. It’s a wonderful way to sublimate all of your existential rage the world hands you on a silver platter. The last part of the show, when I wake up, is physically tasking and to make that joy, that sense of rebirth honest is hard. You always have to watch out to prevent it from feeling hackneyed. You don’t want that. I always want to trade that for authenticity and maybe a bit of wonder.”
And like any hard-working Atlanta actor doing a long stretch in a holiday show this season, de Vries says sleep is incredibly important. Luckily, Scrooge scores some shut eye in “A Christmas Carol” during his nightmarish episode of “This Is Your Life.”
“There’s something devilishly fun about pretending to be asleep on stage,” he says. “You’re doing all this running around and suddenly, you’re supine and you get to have a breather. I usually have a cough drop in my mouth. I just get to lie there and suck on my cough drop and pretend to be asleep. It’s nice.”
Between performances, de Vries says he’s taken the advice of his predecessor in the role, Chris Kayser, who took naps in his dressing room on two-show days. De Vries brought into his Alliance dressing room the old army cot he purchased at an Army/Navy store on Eighth Avenue in New York in the early 2000s during his Broadway run in “Beauty and the Beast.”
Since he’s literally the resident Alliance Theatre expert on all things Ebenezer, why does de Vries think theatregoers keep coming back to Charles Dickens’ 176-year-old yuletide ghost story year after year, decade after decade?
“At its core, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a morality play and it’s instructive,” explains de Vries. “What person hasn’t thought, when presented with their life’s mistakes, ‘I wish I could go back and do things differently. I wish I could hear what that other person was saying to me.’ Anybody who lives a semi-examined life has regrets and would do things differently, if given the opportunity. This story is emblematic of what we would all do if given Scrooge’s great gift to go back and change the mistakes we’ve made in life.”
Above Alliance Theatre production photos of “A Christmas Carol” by Greg Mooney.
David de Vries, Eldredge ATL’s December Guest Editor, stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at the Alliance Theatre through Dec. 24. For tickets or more info: alliancetheatre.org.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.