Triangle Families Take to the Stage for A Christmas Carol

Ham Familynew

For thousands of Triangle residents of all ages, attending a Theatre in the Park's annual performance of A Christmas Carol is a sacred family holiday ritual. Many have booked tickets every year since Ira David Wood III's witty, musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic opened in 1972.

As magical as the show is for the audience, it's just as special — if not more so — for the cast. Under Wood's warm and charismatic leadership, the production attracts young and old, amateur and professional, even multiple generations of the same family, many auditioning year after year. The cast spends so much time together they're as close as a family. Lasting friendships are formed, romances are kindled, and cast members' new babies are introduced to the audience and serenaded in lullaby by Wood himself.

Carolina Parent visited with two local families that have a long and poignant history with A Christmas Carol. Here are their stories.

Tribute performances

Lisa Permar was raised in a musical family of five that dedicated many falls and winters to performing in A Christmas Carol. After she married Bruce Ham and they started a family, she took a hiatus from the stage, channeling her talents into leading her church choir. Then, when the couple's older daughter was 8, both mother and daughter won roles in the production a couple of years in a row, devoting nights and weekends to rehearsals while Bruce stayed home with the Hams' two younger daughters.

Then, two years ago, tragedy struck: Lisa Permar Ham died at age 39 after a six-month battle with colon cancer. Bruce Ham and his three daughters, now 15, 12 and 10, were left with a gaping hole in their hearts.

"After she died, hearing music brought back so many emotions it was painful," Ham says. "Each song had a story."

About a year later, encouraged by Lisa's brother, Hayes Permar — himself a veteran of many Christmas Carols — Ham and his girls decided to audition for the production as a family, as a tribute to Lisa.

"The girls are all musical, but for me, performing was out of my comfort zone," he says. "But something in my heart said, 'You have to put yourself out there, try new things' as a way of being both a mom and a dad to the girls."

All four Hams won roles that year, and so did Hayes, who was living with the Hams at the time to help with the girls.

This year Hayes was too busy to take part, but the four Hams are once again on stage, playing Londoners who cross paths with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ham says it's ironic that when Lisa and Bailey, the oldest daughter, were in the show a few years ago, he occasionally grumbled about the hours they spent in rehearsal, leaving him in charge with two young kids. Now he knows firsthand what it's like to eat hurried dinners, hustle kids into the car and come home after 10 p.m. several nights a week leading up to the show's opening.

"Although it's a huge time commitment, the thing I love about it is that we all get to do it together," says Ham says. "We're always talking about it. We rehearse in the kitchen. Lisa's up in heaven smiling at us and rolling her eyes at the same time."

A third-generation tradition

When Brooke Miller takes the stage this month as the butcher's wife, it will mark her 15th appearance in A Christmas Carol. But more significant for her, it will be the first time she will perform with her husband, James, and their 5-year-old twins.

The Christmas Carol magic runs like a thread through their lives. Miller's parents, Carol and Bill Langley, performed in the play and introduced her to the stage in 1984. After her parents divorced, her mother became one of many locals to meet her future spouse while rehearsing their lines. She is now married to David Moore, who plays Bob Cratchett this year.

And in 1999, one of the few years that college and other commitments kept Brooke from being in the show, she was invited to the cast party — where she met James Miller, her future husband, who was in the show.

So it was only natural that once her children, Piper and Finn, were old enough, Brooke would want the four of them to carry on the tradition together.

"It's an incredible developmental opportunity for the kids," she says. "James and I are strong believers in theater and the performing arts because they teach confidence and perspective. It's a huge time commitment and keeps the children up later than 5-year-olds should be up, but we do it because all the values we have as a family are embodied in the show. I love the idea of teaching my children about redemption (a theme of A Christmas Carol) — that you can control your own destiny, and             how critical it is to cherish the time you have."

A Christmas Carol is so central to their lives that Brooke and James even gave the twins special Christmas-related middle names: Piper's middle name is Noel, and Finn's is Garland.

When little Piper and Finn make their debuts this month, they'll become the third generation in Brooke's family to participate in Raleigh's most famous community theater production. If they're anything like their parents and grandparents, it won't be the only time they're part of the Theatre in the Park family.

Suzanne M. Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.

Second Chances for 'Scrooge'

From the very first rehearsal of his musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1972, Ira David Wood III created an atmosphere that turned cast members into one big family. Actors brought their tots to the theater to hang out, and children were awarded key roles.

When his own children, Ira David Wood IV, now 28, and Evan Rachel, 25, were little, they played in the wings and later had roles in the production year after year, as did his then-wife, Sara Lynne Moore. Over the seasons, he's welcomed the children — and even grandchildren — of his original cast into the Christmas Carol family.

This season, the concept of family is even more poignant as Wood prepares to introduce his third child, 3-month-old Thomas, to A Christmas Carol's audience. Thomas was born to Wood and his wife, Ashley, a few months shy of Wood's 65th birthday and will become one

of dozens of children over the years who made their debut as infants.

Having survived heart surgery two years ago that was so serious his doctors later told him he wouldn't have lived much longer without the procedure, Wood believes he's been given a second chance at life as well as fatherhood.

Although Wood has no plans to retire — "I'm going to drop right here on the stage," he says — he is aware of time's drumbeat. His son, who filled in as Scrooge when Wood was recuperating from surgery, will likely take over as director of Theatre in the Park, ensuring A Christmas Carol's legacy.

The close bond between the cast, Wood and his family is crucial to the enduring success of the show, Wood says.

"It's one of the reasons I think the show has survived," he says. "It's been a big thing in their (cast members') lives.

It's Christmas, it's love, it's a blessing."

—        Suzanne M. Wood

Categories: Activities, Cultural, Family Fun, Family Ties, Lifestyle, Seasonal, Seasonal Fun, SK Activities, Things To Do, Winter Holidays