Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol 166 years ago; it’s been in print ever since and has been assayed innumerable times, in every medium. Yet it remains an outstanding, trenchant work on the page, and it seems to have been made for the stage. Some find it, like the rest of Dickens’ canon, unbearably sentimental and melodramatic; they would perhaps prefer the Bill Murray vehicle, Scrooged, or the latest Disney version, in CGI and 3-D, to an encounter with anything too close to the original. Let us offer them a hearty, “Bah! Humbug!”
Of course, such reluctance is understandable. Everyone feels as if they know the story of the hard-hearted skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption on Christmas Eve, by the ghost of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, and three spirits who reveal to him his neglected past, his ill-perceived present, and the dreadful future that awaits him and those around him should he persist in his thoughtless, villainous ways.
Dickens himself first performed it publicly in 1852, and it remained in his repertoire to the end. Annual stagings have become as ubiquitous, and as endemic to the not-for-profit theatre, as The Nutcracker is in the ballet world. Holiday season alternatives for theatergoers abound — in Asheville alone, one may attend Live from WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life at N.C. Stage and The Santaland Diaries at Asheville Community Theatre.
But do you truly know the Dickens, or have you received it second-hand — perhaps from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, or Mickey’s Christmas Carol, or…? If so, know that Dickens’ words possess enormous power still, and that they count among the most majestic spoken on the English-language stage since Shakespeare.
Happily, if you have never encountered the original or have only the vaguest recollection of it, The Montford Park Players offer you an excellent opportunity to make up this deficiency with their 33rd annual presentation of an uncredited but authentic adaptation. Managing Director John Russell impishly touts this as the true 3-D version, since this Dickens is played in the flesh. Be not alarmed. This production is as traditional as they come. Indeed, watching it, you may feel yourself transported back to the 19th century, not only by the story and its setting, but by the acting and staging, too.
This version is narrated by Bob Cratchit (David Broshar), which turns the set pieces into a procession not unlike an illustrated edition (and, indeed, a storybook appears onstage, its pages flipped to announce the change of scene). For the most part, the performances are presentational; one might decry the declamation, but it gives actors and audience alike the opportunity to revel in Dickens’ magnificent, often searing prose.
The production is homespun, in the best sense. The cast and crew are our neighbors, and what they tend to lack in professional chops and polish is more than made up with conviction and heart.
Broshar’s Cratchit is far more ordinary than dramatic, but prepare for him to bring you to tears in his biggest scene. Scott Keel, as Scrooge’s nephew, exudes vitality, great good humor, and compassion. Jim Slautich’s Marley may seem a touch too stentorian, but watch his face closely: he feels every word he says.
Laura Farmer’s Mrs. Cratchit will surprise you, making you laugh through unexpected brazenness and then moving you through her delicacy. The spirits are weaker than one expects, but all the performers make the most of the scurrilous scene at Old Joe’s, where they sell what they’ve stolen from Scrooge’s death chamber. The children are altogether winning, and have not a jot of the child-actor syndrome that too frequently makes such performances intolerable.
And Trinity Smith, who makes a winning fiancé to Scrooge’s nephew in the party scenes, will break your heart with her wonderful performance as Belle, returning her engagement ring to Young Scrooge (Scott Keel again), after he has forgotten his love for her in pursuit of filthy lucre.
But A Christmas Carol necessarily rises or falls on the strength of its Scrooge. Mike Vaniman assays the part bravely, for the eighth year in a row. Rather than directly confront the ghosts of Scrooges past, he and director Mandy Phillips opt for an unusually inward approach. Enactments of Scrooge tend toward the scenery-chewing variety; Vaniman will have none of it. He keeps his voice small and his gestures few, seeking a real, believable character instead of the received caricature. The result is a Scrooge we might know, instead of a monster. Particularly in the early scenes, Scrooge almost makes sense (by his lights, anyway), and his attitudes toward the poor, government services and charity have a tellingly contemporary ring.
Unfortunately, Vaniman’s intellection and restraint undermine the necessary transformation. Though it’s truly a pleasure to discover how little affected Scrooge is, at first, by the appearance of the spirits — a choice supported by the text — it’s disconcerting to find the demeanor of the morning-after Scrooge little changed, despite the radical alteration of his actions and intentions.
No matter. This show rings true and transcends its limitations. No matter how well you think you know A Christmas Carol, you will likely be touched and delighted afresh.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Directed by Mandy Phillips. Assistant Director and Stage Manager: Joseph Barcia. Set Design and Technical Direction: Angie Wilt. Scenic Artist: Elizabeth Shields. Storybook Concept: Joe Young and Ken Kirby. Lighting Design: Ryan Madden. Costume Design: Victoria Smith. Sound Design: Charlotte Lawrence.
With David Broshar (Bob Cratchit), Mike Vaniman (Scrooge), Scott Keel (Fred, Young Scrooge), Kent Smith (Solicitor, Dick Wilkins, Topper, Undertaker’s Man), Emmalie Handley (Belinda Cratchit, Caroler, Want), Jim Slautich (Marley, Christmas Future), Mandi Hart (Christmas Past, Charwoman, Party Guest), Alec Hopkins (Peter Cratchit, Boy Scrooge, Ignorance, Turkey Boy), Ana Bearley (Little Fan, Tiny Tim), Darren Marshall (Fezziwig, Christmas Present, Old Joe), Laura Farmer (Mrs. Fezziwig, Mrs. Cratchit), Trinity Smith (Belle, Ellen), and Anna Franklin (Martha Cratchit, Mrs. Dilber).
Shows Thursday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Asheville Arts Center, 308 Merrimon Ave. Special Discounts for groups of 10 or more. 254-5146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. www.montfordparkplayers.org.