Edward Gero is in his sixth consecutive year of playing Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre. If you want to do the math, he’s played the part upwards of 300 times. That comes to more than 1,200 visitations from Marley’s Ghost and the various Spirits of Christmas, be they past, present, or future, and three hundred-plus Christmas morning conversions.
Although there are those on Broadway who have stayed in long-running shows for years, and there were famous 19th Century actors who became closely identified with roles that they played for decades, it is unusual for DC-based actors, most of whom go from one limited-run project to the next, to rack up that kind of a number. So a logical question is: how does he keep his performance fresh?
“I was saying to my students at George Mason,” Gero told me during a phone interview following a recent matinee, “you need to stay in the track, but keep out of the rut. You get to know it so well that the trap is that it can become mechanical and you start thinking about your grocery list.” Gero’s tactic to guard against that is simple: listening. “We have a great company who bring different things each night,” unexpected and fresh nuances. Gero’s trick is to “listen to it freshly, and to the audiences, and not to indulge. If you listen to the play, it will take you there.” The trick is to “keep concentration and stay open and let it hit you.”
“It’s a very special place to do it,” Gero continued, referring to Ford’s. “The historical context is very powerful.” Also, the audiences are different from typical audiences at other DC theatres. “They represent a broad spectrum of America. People from all over the country come to see the place and stay to see the show.” For a DC actor like Gero, “It’s like going out of town, but not really.”
“For many people, it’s a tradition,” seeing the Ford’s production, which has been a fixture for decades. Gero began his association with the piece when a new version, adapted by Michael Wilson and directed by Michael Baron, was introduced after the theater went through a renovation. For some, this may be the one time in a year or the first time ever at the theatre. “It’s a good story for the whole family, and it builds audience for theatre more broadly. People come back to see Shakespeare and other plays.”
I recently interviewed Paul Morella, who has also been returning annually with A Christmas Carol. (Morella’s production is a one-man affair at Olney Theatre Center.) I mentioned that Morella had drawn a comparison between Dickens and Shakespeare, a comparison Gero seconded: “Absolutely. No question. I think of Dickens as Shakespeare’s literary grandchild. Both have given us characters whose names we recognize immediately. Both deal with archetypes, larger than life characters, and both demonstrate a love of language. There’s a lot in common.”
I asked Gero about his own memories of Christmas Carols past. Like Morella, he first mentioned the 1951 film. “When I was growing up, the Alastair Sim version played every Christmas Eve, late at night.” He also mentioned the earlier MGM film starring Reginald Owen and pointed out that the wake-up scene (which he described as the emblematic scene) is very different in those two films. Like Morella, he also mentioned the Mr. Magoo TV cartoon version as a favorite (I loved that one when I was a kid), but he then cited more recent, less lauded versions, including the Leslie Bricusse musical film Scrooge starring Albert Finney.
Even less well remembered than the Finney film is a TV version featuring George C. Scott, which Gero proclaimed his “favorite of the modern versions. Scott is an actor for whom I have great admiration, a great respect for his craft.” Gero described Scott’s take as exhibiting “real gravitas,” as being “very American, physical, sinewy. I always thought of him as a dramatic actor, Dr. Stangelove notwithstanding, but he could also be very funny,” said Gero as he recalled seeing Scott play the lead in a late 70s production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. “I had the utmost admiration for his work.”
Edward Gero is now in his fourth decade as an actor in DC. He came down from New York in 1983 for a season at the Folger Theatre. His first show was Troilus and Cressida, and that first season ended with him playing Henry V. Folger’s then Artistic Director John Neville-Andrews invited Gero to stay on for the next season. “I had to make the decision whether to go back and look for different work or to stay and do the work I was trained to do. It was a no-brainer.”
When Michael Kahn was brought in as Folger’s Artistic Director, Gero was one of a few members of the existing Folger company who was retained by Kahn and who maintained a relationship with the theatre as it separated from Folger and morphed into Shakespeare Theatre Company. Just this year, he played the title role in the two-evening Henry IV with Stacy Keach as Falstaff.
That role as Henry IV closed a circle that Gero opened when he played Henry Bolingbroke, the eventual Henry IV, in Richard II. I saw him in that role in Kahn’s production with Richard Thomas in the title role. I asked him if there were other interesting echoes such as that one in his career. After all, he has played in so many of the classics over the years, at STC and elsewhere. He mentioned having done Bolingbroke a few years before the Kahn/Thomas production, in a version directed by Toby Robertson, which he described as a “Kabuki version.”
Gero told of returning to Henry V after having played the title role 30 years earlier, as mentioned. During his second season at Folger, he played Edmond in King Lear; more recently, he played Edmond’s father, the Duke of Gloucester, opposite the Lear of Keach. I remembered that his earlier Lear was the late, wonderful actor John Wylie, who worked a lot at Arena and Olney, as well as at Folger. Gero spoke of Wylie with great affection and admiration and recalled the Folger production of The Miser with Wylie in the lead. “He was great in that.” The earlier Lear production, he told me, was marred by a set that included a waterfall with dyed liquid that splashed audiences in the closest rows and ended up with the Folger paying a lot of dry cleaning bills.
His second Folger season also included a production of Hamlet that I saw, which was directed by one of my idols, Lindsay Anderson, who had made a couple of my all-time favorite movies (If… and O Lucky Man!). “The stories are all true,” Gero told me about an experience that ended up not being happy for many involved. Apparently, the Hamlet (Frank Grimes, an Irish actor who had achieved early success playing a young Brendan Behan at the Abbey Theatre in Borstal Boy, which transferred to Broadway) would drink stout during intermission, ostensibly to help his throat through the taxing role. “When that was taken away, he wasn’t happy.” I didn’t ask specifically about one story I had heard, that, during a final performance, Grimes inserted the words “the dismal, dismal Folger” into a soliloquy. But, if the stories are all true…
We talked about roles other than Bolingbroke that Gero has repeated. Those include Lord Capulet. He did that at STC and also at Olney in a production that featured Richard Bauer in one of his final roles, playing Friar Lawrence. “I enjoyed that role. In my mind, it’s a sketch for Lear. You see the father come back.”
Don John in Much Ado about Nothing is a role Gero did twice, once at the Folger before Kahn took over in a production set on a ship in the 30s (“the upper class characters were out of Noël Coward; the lower class characters were out of Damon Runyon — it was great fun”) and once when Kahn opened the Lansburgh Theatre with a production featuring Kelly McGillis and David Selby in the leads. The role was “very satisfying, was great fun to play. The challenge is to figure out what’s motivating this guy.” He focused on the character as a bastard son with limited prospects, having hopes of marrying Hero and into money. When that hope is foreclosed, he decides, “If I can’t have her, no one will.”
It seems that three is the most he has done any of Shakespeare’s plays. One of those is, funnily enough, about the least-frequently done of the comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In that, he has played Master Ford, Master Page, and also (wait for it) Mistress Quickly.
I asked Gero about roles he’s wanted to play, but never had the chance to. “One of those plays that got away was Julius Caesar. I was playing [one of the conspirators] and, after it was over, I just pined to come back and have a crack at Brutus. In Othello, I did Cassio, and I was eye-balling Iago, but that hasn’t come by me either.”
I asked what roles or productions he looks back on with regret, feeling that they didn’t gel somehow. He mentioned a production of As You Like It in which he doubled as Orlando’s brother and as Sir Oliver Martext, the latter of which he pronounced “a failure. It was a hard role, and we took a commedia approach which didn’t quite make it. It was just terrible.”
Gero has had a wonderful career as a classical actor, much of it at STC, but he has also done contemporary plays with great success at other theaters around town. He estimated that Kahn has directed him more than anyone else in classical roles, while Studio Theatre’s Founding Artistic Director Joy Zinoman has directed him more than anyone else in contemporary plays. I asked which modern playwrights are a particular fit for him as an actor. “Certainly Arthur Miller and that Northeastern, ethnic world of the 40s and 50s — those were the cadences I grew up with in New Jersey.” Next, he mentioned the contemporary Irish writer Connor McPherson and the rhythm and melody of his language.
Then another Irishman was mentioned, Samuel Beckett, and his “bleak, wonderful syntax and wit.” Gero told me that he did a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago in New York and that he is currently “pitching it to Stacy.” Describing their Lear-Gloucester pairing as a “trailer” of sorts, he tells Keach, “Now, let’s do the real thing!” (The role of the two tramps that Gero has his eye on is Estragon, by the way.)
Anyone with a 30-year history in town will undoubtedly have an interesting perspective on how theatre in DC has changed, or not, and about our place in the national context, and Gero did not disappoint. “I do get a sense that our identity hasn’t been fully realized. There’s a mythology about theatre in Chicago, what makes it unique, what makes it different.” Notwithstanding that DC generates more Equity contracts and sells more tickets than Chicago, he observed, Chicago has developed a sense of having “a theatre of our own” in a way that DC has yet to develop.
What would define that identity? Washington could become “the Athens of the Western World,” a place where politically informed and engaged theatre would speak to power. “You can’t do that anywhere else in the country.” Offering examples of that sort of theatre that already exist, he pointed to Arena Stage’s recent production Camp David and to a play he did twice (to great acclaim) at Round House Theatre, Nixon’s Nixon, in which he played the title role. More of that kind of theatre “could make Washington unique.”
He also observed that “we aren’t exporting our work. We are exporting our artists, but not our work.” What helped to define Chicago as a force on the national landscape was when David Mamet emerged from there in the 70s, Steppenwolf in the 80s (when Malkovich and Sinise brought True West to New York), and, in the 90s, when productions from Robert Falls’ Goodman Theatre (beginning with the Death of a Salesman featuring Brian Dennehy) began heading East.
“Chicago is ten years ahead of us. Things began to grow there in the 70s. For us, it was in the 80s.” The downside of our expansion is that the local scene has “gravitated toward the building of institutions. We have plenty of those.” Gero’s dream for DC theatre is that, over the next ten years or so the current state of affairs will become “a departure point” and the rest of the country will come to understand that Washington is a magnet for theatrical talent and should be seen as an arts destination.
Also, “we have to stop defending ourselves,” he told me, before he related a story from one of his stays in Chicago. In addition to having done the Stacy Keach King Lear at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, he also played Mark Rothko in Red there, a role DC audiences saw him do here at Arena. A writer for the city’s major newspaper asked him, what’s it like being an actor in Washington, the question tinged with a presumption that there must be something very parochial and back-woods to a life in the theatre here. Gero was having none of that. He shot back, “It’s like being a writer for the Chicago Tribune.”