Charles Dickens’ ageless story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption has received a number of odd and unusual stagings (remember Mr. Magoo’s version?), but for purity of tradition this holiday season, look no farther than the Cape Cod Theatre Company’s production of A Christmas Carol. The script is wonderfully literate, with Victorian pearls sprinkled throughout that include, “there’s more of gravy than the grave about you,” said to Marley’s ghost by a dismissive Scrooge attributing the apparition to a bout of indigestion.
Eric Hill’s adaptation is a tale of two men: it’s about Ebenezer Scrooge, and it’s also about Charles Dickens. It opens on—and continues with—the author reading from his own story, as Hill frames Scrooge’s redemption with the enduring power of storytelling. “Darkness was cheap,” explains Dickens, setting the tone, “and he liked it.”
And then there’s the acting.
They say that actors should never be onstage with cute children, because upstaging is inevitable, but no one’s told that to James P. Byrne, who absolutely steals the show from them all. His Scrooge is, simply, brilliant. By turns angry, befuddled, and desperate, his howling and clamoring stops just this side of over the top. It is perfect. He is perfect. This isn’t the cold, hateful Scrooge of many past productions: Byrne’s Scrooge is chatty and high-energy, contorting his body and spelling out his desperation physically; he’s funny and pathetic and intensely human. One finds oneself really rooting for him to change. Hell, one enjoys him even before he changes!
The ghosts provide excellent contrasts, both to Scrooge and to each other. Christmas Past (Emily Murray) is ethereal and sad; Christmas Present (Dianne Wadsworth) is human and accessible; Christmas Yet to Come (Jack Coughlin) is—well, frankly, terrifying.
The rest of the cast could well have stepped out of the original novella’s illustrations. Fezziwig (Ed Coppola) is jolly and bumptious; Bob Cratchit (Matt Kohler) exhausted and overworked; Belle (Baylie Hartford) resigned to losing Scrooge; nephew Fred (Brendan Cloney) cheerful and rather over-brimming with holiday spirit. And all the children are exactly what children in a Dickens tale need to be: cute, mischievous, not quite clean, and underfoot all the time.
The set is marvelous, dominated by a city skyline that shifts colors and moods. The counting house at one end of the stage is almost forgotten, though not so the miser’s bed at the other, and between them the scenes change with dexterity and speed. (With this size cast, shifting becomes a little easier!) Byrne also did the set and lighting design, his one misstep being a brief Night of the Living Dead sequence with strobes that’s a little disorienting. But the rest is perfect, as the audience follows Scrooge from past to present to future, going through street scenes, drawing rooms, and a rather impressive cemetery before the orgy of goodwill and cheer that’s the final scene.
By October 1843 Charles Dickens was a household name thanks to Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby. But then came two novels serialized in his blog (or the period’s equivalent thereof) that went nowhere, and Dickens found he needed money—fast. He reworked a scene from Pickwick Papers about a grumpy old man visited by ghosts at Christmas, and his “ghostly little book” was published in time for the holidays. A Christmas Carol became a universal sensation (and got Dickens back out of debt), helping create holiday traditions of charity, hearty celebration, and goodwill toward all.
This year, more than ever, we need a narrative of redemption for past mistakes and hope for the future. You’ll find it all onstage in A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol is at the Cape Cod Theatre Company until December 30th. Tickets at 508.432.2002 or capecodtheatrecompany.org.