If you were fortunate enough to see Sally Nystuen Vahle in 2015's harrowing Medea, you saw one of the strongest performance on a Dallas Theater Center stage in a long time. The company cleverly used the “Down Center Stage” space (aka basement) for the production, and no other space could have been more fitting for its deeds, best executed far from the light of day.
The dark loading ramp, exposed wire and light bulbs, and raw stage materials around the basement set the perfect, haunting mood. As the sorceress Medea, Vahle murders her own children to punish her husband for a betrayal. The audience only learns of what she has done through shadows and screams.
In that dark, terrifying basement play, Vahle was a star. And it was then that Steven Walters, fellow DTC company member and current director of the latest iteration of the perennial holiday favorite A Christmas Carol, cast his Ebeneezer Scrooge. This year's production will feature a woman in the role: Sally Nystuen Vahle.
Something about a blood-spattered mad woman screamed “Christmas classic!” to Walters, and there's nothing about Dicken’s classic novella that demands Scrooge be played by a man. “Sally is a thinking, responsive actor," he says. "She listens so carefully. Not everyone would be up to this challenge."
Walters brought the idea to DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty, who was immediately curious and excited about the idea. They all worked together to craft a version of the story that allows for a female Scrooge (which included swapping out the gender of several other characters and changing gender pronouns).
As the presidential election drew closer, Walters expected the production to be a sort of victory lap. But now that it has turned out we aren't getting our first woman president, Walters says the production is even more important. “It’s not hard to get people at DTC excited about social justice, but this production feels like a responsibility now.”
Walters says Moriarty’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol — which in recent years has shown Scrooge glowering as he looks down on a factory of his underpaid employees — plays up those themes of social justice, and that Vahle will be able to bring a new depth of emotion to the role of Scrooge.
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“There’s loneliness, grief, bitterness there," he says of Vahle's interpretation. "Her vulnerability is remarkable. Her access to these deep, complicated feelings gives such layers to the part.”
Walters says Dallas doesn’t get to see enough of Vahle on stage. The mother of two and assistant professor of voice and acting at the University of North Texas is too busy. “She’s one of the finest actors, not just in Dallas, but in American theater as a whole. After seeing her Medea and what she could do with that lead, I wanted to work with her. I admire her so much.”
Walters says he's also excited to hear the younger girls in the play announce that they will be back to play Scrooge someday. “These constructs of our society say that boys can’t cry, or girls cry too much. We all have to live up to certain expectations. This is a story about a person that has to learn that she has a responsibility not just to herself, but to the community. It’s for everyone. It’s a real leap of empathy for Scrooge in the end.”
Vahle will perform in A Christmas Carol through Dec. 28.