by Ann M. Colford & r & It's easy to feel smug and cynical going into a production of A Christmas Carol. Seems like we see a new film or television version of the Dickens fable every few years, sometimes with music, sometimes with puppets, sometimes even starring cartoon characters. Some versions veer away from the Dickens original, but not the production of the holiday classic onstage now at the Civic Theater Main Stage, directed by Yvonne Johnson (playing through Dec. 18). Based on an adaptation by Barbara Field and originally produced at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis 30 years ago, this Carol stays true to the author's outrage at the social and economic inequities of his day and echoes uncannily well today.
Everyone knows the story, right? Miserly and cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge gets his comeuppance thanks to three spirits who visit him in the wee hours of Christmas Eve at the behest of his former partner, the equally miserly Jacob Marley. Marley's eyes have been opened, if you will, in the afterlife, as he pays the price for his lack of compassion, and he returns to warn Scrooge of the fate that awaits him beyond the grave. Scrooge enters involuntary therapy with the ghosts, reviewing his childhood and youth and reliving the emotional pain of the past.
Ultimately the success of the story depends on the viewer's willingness to believe the transformation of Scrooge from, well, a Scrooge to a veritable Father Christmas. And in this production, with the role of Scrooge in the capable hands of Dennis Craig (who appeared as Scrooge in the musical version a few years ago), that key transformation works. Craig's Scrooge is a curmudgeon and a grump at the outset, and as he argues the merits of prisons and workhouses, he probably would fit in well with today's segment of the population who advocate tax cuts over funding social programs. Yet it's clear that this Scrooge still has a shred of humanity about him; his nephew Fred (Steve M. Anderson) seems to think there's hope that Scrooge will visit him on Christmas, and even the overworked and underpaid Bob Cratchit (Tracy Schornick) tolerates his boss's tart tongue with restrained good humor. Craig finds the balance in his portrayal to make Scrooge a sympathetic character rather than an inhuman villain.
Of course part of that balance comes from Dickens' original 1843 text, which the script follows closely. Although Freud hadn't been born and psychology wouldn't get rolling as an academic discipline for a good 30 years, the author explored the family dynamics and romantic disappointments that continue to haunt his main character. Through the spirits, especially Christmas Past (Melody Deatherage), we learn of Scrooge's own harsh childhood and the choices he made as a young man that led to the loss of his fianc & eacute;e. As the spirits make clear, these events do not excuse Scrooge's heartlessness, but they help explain how he reached such a state of isolation.
A Christmas Carol is not a musical and yet it is not without music. A quartet sings a variety of Victorian carols -- "The Wassail Song," "The Holly and the Ivy," "Fum Fum Fum" -- during scene changes. The carols feel a tad superfluous, but they serve to fill the space between scenes and cover set changes; the songs are only slightly distracting and they help to set the Victorian mood.
This is an ambitious production, with nearly 40 actors and many more people behind the scenes, but it doesn't feel crowded or overdone. The spare musical accompaniment helps; most of the time, the only music comes from the piano score played by musical director Michael Saccamanno. In addition, there are few crowd scenes; most of the drama is focused on Scrooge and his interactions with the spirits and other individual characters. Even the group scenes like Fezziwig's party feel intimate, thanks in part to the set design from Nik Adams in his final production for the Civic.
With such a large cast, there's bound to be some unevenness here and there -- a few of the accents waxed and waned, for instance -- but overall the team performed well. As Scrooge, Craig carried much of the burden, and he was a standout. Tony Caprile was all-business as the successful young Marley and delightfully frightening as the Ghost of Marley; Kent and Norilee Kimball seemed to have great fun as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, the couple whose parties entertained Scrooge as an apprentice; and Jimmy-James Pendleton brought a growing acquisitiveness to the young Ebenezer, along with anger in the face of rejection.
But what can a 160-year-old story say to a contemporary audience, especially one that's witnessed any number of different tellings of the tale? As a good Victorian, Dickens wasn't above tweaking the sentimental heartstrings, and yet he accomplished more than a feel-good tale of redemption centered on the emerging secular holiday of Christmas. (Although Christmas had been around as a religious feast for centuries, the modern Christmas celebration as we know it -- a holiday from work, time spent with family, a feast of food and drink and the exchange of gifts -- was really just beginning in Dickens' time.)
Dickens brought community to the forefront in his story, especially the idea that everyone in a civil society bears responsibility for the good of the least among us -- a concept championed by the one whose birthday is ostensibly the reason for Christmas. Appalled at the conditions affecting those in his own city who had few resources, Dickens painted a cautionary tale with the allegorical twins, Ignorance and Want. We neglect the poor at our own peril, Dickens says; the state of both our souls and our cities suffer for it.
In addition, Scrooge's conversion happens when he opens himself to being in relationship with others, with all the attendant risk of both pain and joy that implies. The lesson is not just that Scrooge turns into a generous old soul; it's that he overcomes the pain of rejection and once again joins the family of humanity. The tale may be told at Christmas, but the message is a gift for the entire year.