WEST VALLEY CITY — Despite heavy hearts, Hale Centre Theatre is moving forward without one of its own, Richard Wilkins, best known in the arts community for his long-running portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the theater's "A Christmas Carol."
"He was one of the family," says HCT executive producer and co-founder Sally Dietlein. "He will be missed."
Wilkins, 59, died last Monday after collapsing over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Although David Weekes has been double-cast with Wilkins as Scrooge for a number of years and will fill the role for all performances, the company knows the absence of Wilkins will be felt poignantly during every show.
Dietlein recalls fondly how, in 1985, when Wilkins was 32, founder Ruth Hale approached him after hearing him speak in church. Hale invited him to audition for a role in her premiere of "I Came to Your Wedding."
Wilkins and his wife, Melany, were both cast in the production, and a lifelong attachment to the theater was born. When HCT later put on "A Christmas Carol," Wilkins, certain he was too young for the part, asked if he could at least read for it.
"No one was expecting him to get the role, but when he read for it, the passion was so tangible. He loved Dickens' message, and his earnest desire that no one miss that message translated into something very meaningful on stage," says Dietlein. "So he was cast at 32, and made the role his own for 28 years — at first with the help of a lot of makeup, and slowly, without much at all.”
In the meantime, Wilkins became a Dickens aficionado and one of the country's foremost experts on the author. It drove his fervor in portraying Scrooge year after year, and that's why — year after year — the production sold out.
"Dickens resonated with him because he was a fearless defender of social issues, particularly when he addressed the horrific treatment of children during the time in which 'A Chritmas Carol' was set," says Dietlein. The story's "Tiny Tim" character embodies that message. "Richard was passionate about defending the ‘poor man's child.’ He found a kinship with Dickens on so many levels."
A prominent attorney and former law professor dedicated to family law, Wilkins was invited by the queen of Qatar in 2005 to oversee the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development. He agreed to move, but with the stipulation that he still be able to resume his role as Ebenezer Scrooge in Utah each season.
"He felt it was important to always stay true to the story's intent, and he had the earnest desire that no one miss that message," Dietlein says. For a time, Wilkins even directed the production using his adaptation. That adaptation is the one HCT still uses today. "He was purely excellent in the role, and people came in droves because of it."
Dietlein said Wilkins gave "100 percent every time, even in rehearsal and during back-to-back performances." Often the costume he wore would be wringing wet from sweat at the performance's end.
As for how HCT will carry on without Wilkins, she recognizes it will be difficult, especially with the opening just days away on Dec. 8. "We’ll feel his loss profoundly and each show will be dedicated to him," she says.
Weekes, who has shared Scrooge duties with Wilkins since 2005 (Wilkins’ new schedule made it impossible to attend fall rehearsals, so the role was double-cast), will take on the role with the production’s director, John Sweeney, understudying.
HCT’s “A Christmas Carol” has long become a family affair for the entire Wilkins clan. Wife Melany and their four children have been cast in many lead roles. Although Melany finds it too difficult to continue on in this year's production, their youngest son, Rex, who recently returned from an LDS Church mission in Washington, will move forward as a member of the choir, opting for “Grandma (Ruth) Hale’s” philosophy that “theater is therapy.”
“He feels that’s what his dad would have wanted,” says Dietlein, acting as spokeswoman for the family.
When she pictures Wilkins playing Ebenezer Scrooge, she imagines the moment where, humbled and transformed, the repentant hero falls to his knees in solemn promise, reciting Dickens’ immortal words: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
“He lived that,” she says. “He honored that promise and did a lot — not just on our little stage, but on the world stage.”
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