After 20 years, Scrooge still orneryBy J. J. Valdez
Almost 25 years ago a former Highlands Christian Schools employee saw a man playing the role of Captain in a San Mateo performance of "The Sound of Music," and what she saw blew her away so much that she got an idea.
She was so captivated by John Ilyin's performance that a few years later she asked him if he would be interested in performing in a another leading role for a play her church was putting together. To this day, he has remained in that role, Ebenezer Scrooge, for the church's annual play, and he maintains a sense of humility with every performance.
With Christmas just around the corner, it's time once again for Church of the Highlands to put on their annual performance of Scrooge, playing today-Sunday, as the church has done since 1989. This year marks the 20th year they've held the event.
While many actors in the play have come and gone since the first performance, Ilyin has been one of Scrooge's mainstays by playing the main character. Ilyin said he was practically given the role by Marlene Huddleston, one of the past directors of the play, who saw how talented he was during his performances in San Mateo.
Ilyin is no stranger to the stage, having in the past performed all over the Bay Area in operas, musicals and plays. He has also been a featured singer during some of the Sunday services at Church of the Highlands.
His heart still remains with the only stage performance he's ever done in San Bruno, Ilyin said, which is a role he enjoys doing immensely.
"I just love playing the character and I love to interpret it from a great screenwriter," Ilyin said during one of the play's dress rehearsals this week. "I mean, I'm not a writer but I love great writing, and I'm humbled to be able to do the part I've gotten and be able to interpret it."
The Highlands version of Scrooge doesn't exactly follow the theme of the original play, based on the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. It incorporates spiritual values into the narrative that make it what some would call the "Christian version."
It's this aspect of the play that Ilyin loves the most.
"I love the message, 'It's never too late to change.' It's reminding people of spirituality and to reflect on your life for the better. That's important to me," Ilyin said. "It's about glorifying Jesus Christ and reminding people to read the Bible, and that's why I do it."
The play's longevity has been interrupted only twice in the past. According to one of the play's current directors, Dave Smith, those were the years they tried different Christmas-themed musicals. One was called "All on a Christmas Day" and the other was called "Christmas Through the Years."
After those two plays, Smith said, the congregation and the community kept saying they wanted to see Scrooge and Ilyin back on the stage. They have stuck with the same formula ever since, Smith said.
Another performer who has been with the production team since the very first performance is Jeff Frentz, Highlands' facilities manager, who has played the role of Bob Cratchit, the abused, underpaid clerk of Ebenezer Scrooge in the play. Frentz said he looks forward to this time every year because he gets to work with Ilyin once again.
"(Working) with John Ilyin is a pleasure," Frentz said. "He's a very fun and energetic individual with a wonderful personality, and he adds a level of professionalism to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge that is unequaled. John is the quintessential Scrooge. He's the best."
Much like Ilyin, Frentz believes that the importance of the play lies in its message of Christian values.
"We'll continue to do this for as long as God allows," Frentz said. "We want this to be for the glory of God, so as long as he keeps allowing it we'll keep doing it."
Frentz isn't the only person excited about working with Ilyin once again. Smith, who also plays Jacob Marley in the play, sees this as a way of working with an old friend.
"It's always a pleasure working with John," Smith said. "We work together closely but we don't get to see each other through the year. I only see him the month before we put Scrooge on, and we're very close at that time."
Smith says that jokingly with a cavaet.
They are very close, he said, but neither one would go as far as naming their babies after one another other. After all, Ilyin is playing Scrooge.
Church of the Highlands' play, Scrooge, debuts today at 7:30pm at the church. For more information, visit the church's website or call 650-266-4433.
Copyright ©2010 San Bruno Patch. Published 12/10/2010.