Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Styled as a proper 19th century English gentleman on a recent December evening, Richard Wilkins expectantly stands in the brightly lit atrium of West Valley City's Hale Centre Theatre in full costume: knee-length topcoat covers silk vest covers white shirt garnished with a black ribbon tie.
Per the theater's custom, the cast of "A Christmas Carol" is greeting and thanking audience members as they exit the building. A bone-chilling winter storm swirls on the other side of double-paned windows, but inside it's downright toasty. Small beads of sweat on Wilkins' forehead reflect light cascading from a chandelier.
Minutes ago, Wilkins capped off two hours of the dancing, jumping and running away from ghosts that collectively constitute the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. As patrons descend down a lushly carpeted staircase and start shaking his hand, Wilkins still hasn't quite caught his breath from hoisting Tiny Tim up onto his right shoulder for the final curtain call.
Wilkins, a 59-year-old legal scholar and former law professor, is a loquacious sort never at a loss for words or a smile. Watching him chitchat with people from the audience, it's difficult to tell where a repentant Scrooge ends and the Tao of Wilkins begins. As interesting as it is to observe, though, the ease with which he effortlessly steps into and out of his stage persona is nevertheless no big surprise in light of the fact that 2011 marks his 27th year playing Ebenezer Scrooge for this theater group.
Indeed, since first portraying Scrooge in 1985, Wilkins has increasingly internalized the values Charles Dickens sought to convey in penning "A Christmas Carol." And in a compelling case of life imitating art, Wilkins now finds himself the director of an important international advocacy group that promotes family policy at places like the United Nations — a job perfectly tailored to put into practice the values of Dickens' timeless tale. Never mind that that job is in Qatar or that he is now a battle-tested policy guru whose time is worth much money; the lessons of "A Christmas Carol" are so deeply rooted in Wilkins' soul that every November he makes a point of sojourning back to Utah for another reprisal of his beloved Scrooge role.
Hale Centre Theatre was co-founded in 1985 by Sally Dietlein and her husband's grandparents, Ruth and Nathan Hale. Ruth heard Wilkins speak in church one Sunday and was enamored with his oratory skills, so she arranged for him to appear in the theater's first production.
The young attorney quickly proved his mettle on the stage, and soon Wilkins chose to audition for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the theater's forthcoming production of "A Christmas Carol." The fact that a 32-year-old Wilkins somehow persuaded producers to cast him as the bordering-on-retirement Scrooge is itself something of a minor miracle.
"He was really good (in the audition), and he learned how to use makeup really well," recalls Dietlein, who starred alongside Wilkins in that 1985 production. "Somehow or another he pulled it off, and it was quite remarkable that he did it."
Thus began the still-going-strong, 27-year streak of Wilkins playing Scrooge. Having already accepted a professorial position in 1984 at his alma mater BYU Law School (he graduated first in his class in 1979), Wilkins came to the production equipped with the requisite vocational stability and scheduling flexibility to be single-cast every year as Scrooge — meaning he played Scrooge in all shows even while most roles were double-cast and featured alternating actors.
As he aged, Wilkins started looking more like the traditional Scrooge archetype. (Dietlein noted: "What's been really fascinating has been watching Richard age into the role and not need makeup anymore.")
The passage of time also afforded him opportunity to devour details of Dickens' life with an insatiable intellectual appetite. Not only can he recite at will any line from Hale Centre Theatre's Dickens-based script, but Wilkins can also quote Dickens' own words describing the motivation behind the "Christmas Carol" novella.
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