The Bay Area's Three Scrooges

By Chad Jones
November 28, 2012

American Conservatory Theater's James Carpenter and Center Repertory Company's Mark Anderson Phillips, seen on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif., play the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in their respective company's production of, "A Christmas Carol." Photo: Russell Yip, The Chronicle/SF

Two Scrooges are veterans of the bah-humbug circuit, while another Scrooge is so new he may not yet have a lump of coal where his heart should be.

With the advent of the holiday season comes a flood of "Carols," "Christmas Carols," that is, the Charles Dickens warhorse that uses ghosts, greed and little boys with crutches to teach seemingly timeless lessons about being a functional member of society. And as there have been for so many years, Bay Area stages are full of Cratchits, Marleys and Scrooges.

Playing Ebenezer in the three biggest local "Carols" are James Carpenter, now heading into his seventh year with the show at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; Richard Farrell, in his second miserly year at San Jose Repertory Theatre; and Mark Anderson Phillips, playing Scrooge in his first full production of "A Christmas Carol" with Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek.

This may be Farrell's second year with San Jose Rep, but this is his 12th career "Carol," having played Scrooge in seven previous productions in cities such as Sacramento, Seattle, San Diego and Rochester, N.Y. "I've played Marley and Cratchit and many other roles," says Farrell, 60. "I'm still waiting to play Tiny Tim."

The Lafayette resident, a veteran of local stages as well as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, says the best part of playing Scrooge is also the most challenging. "You really have to play a whole gamut of emotions that the character runs through," Farrell says. "It's really wonderful to get a chance to discover all those different little nooks and crannies of emotion and experience that lead to a real resurrection at the end."

Carpenter, who shared a dressing room with Farrell a few seasons ago in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's "Three Sisters," first played Scrooge in a "Carol" directed by Jonathan Moscone at the Dallas Theater Center, and he had a misapprehension about the story.

"I thought it was for children," he says. "I grew up on 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol,' so the story was like a cartoon to me. When I read the book again, I realized it was not for kids. It was for adults, and the man who wrote it was deeply angered at the things his society was ignoring and letting slide by and taking for granted. He wrote a story about the power of redemption to change your outlook and wake up the world as a whole, not just in the heart, but in the mind and the wallet. It's about sharing worldly and non-worldly treasures."

That first Scrooge was a little light, says Carpenter, 60. "It's not that he has to be so nasty, it's just that he's shut off from other people. The more enclosed and encapsulated he is, when the message of the ghosts finally gets through and breaks the dam, the joy of life, the joy of people, the joy of recognizing people and their worth comes flooding in. That's a pretty fabulous thing."

And that's one of the reasons Carpenter, a new homeowner in Oakland, can return to the role at ACT with enthusiasm each year.

At 44, Phillips is the youngest of the Scrooges. The San Jose resident actually played Scrooge in the musical version of the story when he was a student at UC Davis, and last year he repeated the role in a production San Jose Rep created for student audiences.

Phillips, who lives in San Jose, has shared the stage with both Farrell (in Center Rep's "Noises Off") and Carpenter (in Center Rep's "The Mousetrap"). He jokes that playing a mean old man requires only a funny voice, hunching over and being cranky.

"Seriously, I think Scrooge is in all of us," Phillips says. "That's why the story is so attractive to so many. We see elements of him in us. We may not have taken things to that extreme, but his is a cautionary tale. Don't let yourself get this far. Scrooge could be you."

Theater folk tend to joke about "A Christmas Carol" being an annual cash cow that must be done to keep theater coffers filled, but Farrell, Carpenter and Phillips agree that there's more to it than that.

"There's a lot of sentiment and an incredible hopefulness about the story," Farrell says. "Scrooge reaches a place of no hope and suddenly there's a chance at redemption. I guess that's grace, isn't it?"

Phillips sees the 1843 story reverberating in headlines. "Scrooge learns that happiness does not come from material things," he says. "He sees that the love that you give to other people and that they give to you is the mark of a life well spent. It's about learning what's really important, what matters."

And Carpenter finds more than a little Scrooge in himself. "I love humanity but hate people," he says with a laugh. "One of these days I'll be saying, 'Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!' The crabby factor increases the older I get. That's good for playing Scrooge, but I'm trying to mellow that in real life."