Long-term Orlando residents have learned to accept that, in a town as transient and novelty-seeking as ours, even the most beloved annual traditions don't last forever.
Take A Christmas Carol, for example; since I arrived in the mid-1990s, I've lost count of how many area theater companies have turned Charles Dickens' classic into a yearly yuletide cash cow. My nostalgic favorite from Theatre Downtown achieved double-digit anniversaries before fading away, as did Robin & Terry Olson's three-person Dickens by Candlelight, which is being revived next week at Audubon Park Covenant Church and the Renaissance Theatre after a four-year absence. Inevitably, additional interpretations of Scrooge's story emerge to take up the slack, with this year's crop including versions from Orlando Shakes and Ensemble Company. Central Florida even contributed an original comedic take to the cinematic world this season with A Christmas Karen starring Michele Simms (streaming free on Hoopla with an OCLS library card).
However, one Orlando embodiment of Ebenezer's story has outlasted not only its compatriots, but also many of the venues where it has appeared over the decades, in order to now celebrate its silver anniversary. Southern Winds Theatre has been staging its One Man Christmas Carol every year since 1997, and on Dec. 16-18 its regional tour stops at Oviedo Mall's Penguin Point. Ahead of attending last weekend's performance at DeBary's Gateway Center for the Arts, I interviewed actor-playwright David McElroy, along with his partner, Marylin McGinnis, and their daughter/director Chloe A. McElroy, to learn how this family affair has endured and evolved over the past 25 consecutive Christmases.
When I last spoke with the McElroys in 2019, they were helping Penguin Point celebrate its first Christmas, with Chloe serving her sophomore season behind the soundboard. Three years and a pandemic later, David says he was happy his wife and daughter helped him pivot to online performance in 2020 ("I had about 150 people on there, which was kind of cool!") but he sounds even happier to now be back in person at theaters and retirement communities. And although Chloe says "the pandemic did hit very hard, especially on our family, mostly just because my sister and I are both immunocompromised," it also brought them closer together — literally — with her sister and brother-in-law moving down from New York, all of them "in this one little house together."
As a University of Central Florida theater graduate in a world where theaters were shuttered, Chloe says, "Honestly, my career, I think, was the last thing on my mind at that point, because I was so worried about my family." But as restrictions eased, she restarted her stage work by appearing in original projects for UCF, Playwrights Round Table and Orlando Rep. And in 2021, she stepped into her biggest role, taking over the directing reins of Christmas Carol from McGinnis. Although she hadn't directed a show since high school, she was well-prepared after being a part of her parents' productions since the age of 6. "I feel like I have some big shoes to fill, but I feel like I'm doing OK," says Chloe, adding, "The theater was kind of our babysitter, because a lot of the time we'd come to rehearsal with my parents, and I remember running through audience seats as a child, being in a theater all the time watching my parents."
After an abortive inaugural attempt at using a full set and elaborate masks, the structure and script for McElroy's one-man effort (which he says was initially inspired by Sir Patrick Stewart's legendary version) has remained fairly stable for the past 24 years. This adaptation still manages to stuff literary and historical context and a surfeit of small characters — as well as several musical selections from the 1970 Albert Finney film Scrooge — into a swift 60-something minutes, while also making space for frequent audience interaction and goofy humor. "We never changed the story," says David, but he credits Chloe with several changes, like a participatory dance moment: "A couple of things that we did in the past, she's embellished; and certain things in the past, she said, 'Can we remove this?' As we go along, it works; it works with what we're doing. ... I think I'm more emotionally involved [and] she's done a great job of helping me do that."
"I'm trying to put my own style into it, as well as use the things I've learned," says Chloe, but she's "also not trying to usurp all of my mom's directing, because she directed it for 20 years." For her part, McGinnis says it was "easier than I thought" to have "stepped away" from helming the show (aside from giving David "one little general note towards the end"), and concludes that "Chloe was with it so long — for sound, and just in the room for all those years watching it — that she was kind of the perfect person to take over."
Over 25 years, this Carol has been presented in coffeehouses and defunct bookstores; been accompanied by birds and dogs; and been attended by one couple 23 times. "I think that a big joy for the people who come back and see it every year is to try to spot the things that have changed, and see the things that are the same and come back for this really poignant story," says Chloe.
But if she has her way, the Ghost of Christmas Future foretells one more huge change that may someday be in store for the show: "I have watched my dad do this over the past 25 years, and it would be just a pleasure to be able to do it once, and let him see me do it. ... That's something that I've wanted to do, because I don't want to let the tradition of our family die."