I admit to a decided lack of devotion to Dickens. Like most Americans I read Great Expectations in high school because it was assigned, and like many students I hated the book as a result. It wasn’t until late in my college career that I discovered the joy of Dickensian prose through the unlikely but delightful A Christmas Carol. I read it mostly out of curiosity. I had seen too many versions of the classic story and I picked it up expecting to hate it; however, I found in the original an artfully crafted tale about a man who has spent his life becoming the very cynic I myself was. In the hands of not only a master story teller like Dickens, and a master craftsman of characters, the iconic Scrooge finally came to life for me. A Christmas Carol became my favorite holiday novel.
So it was with, ahem, great expectations that I saw the Lower Shore Performing Arts Company’s production of A Christmas Carol at Washington High School in Princess Anne. I took my daughter whose only knowledge of this story comes via Walt Disney. I hoped she would discover the beauty and purity of the original work as I had all those years ago. I was not disappointed.
This is a big production with a cast of more than 50 people gracing the small stage, including dozens of caroling children. Director Mark Tyler, no slouch when it comes to directing large ensembles—he also helmed the spring LSPAC production of 1776: The Musical—has assembled a cast that deftly navigates the pages of this classic Dickens tale.
A Christmas Carol onstage
The dark stage initially frightened my daughter, as a story filled with ghosts was likely to do. She buried her face in my coat until the lights came up on Bob Cratchit. Chris Jump brings the character to towering life with a boyish charm. He is good and kind even in the face of the miserly old Scrooge who belittles him for using too much coal and for wanting to take off Christmas Day. Jump can’t help but exude an innocent virtuousness when, later, he raises a glass to Scrooge, despite his wife’s objections.
Still, it was only when Scrooge, bedecked in all black, shuffled onto the stage that my daughter finally let go of her grip on my arm. Played by a veteran of the stage, Nick Donchak, Scrooge is grumpy, miserly, and ill-tempered without being mean spirited. His trademark “bah-humbug” is delivered without malice, more as a statement of disaffectedness than of hatred. Donchak’s Scrooge is, like Dicken’s original, a troubled soul, a man whose life has led him to believe only in himself, a man who has no regard for other people. If they work for him, he expects them to do the job he pays for. If they do not work for him, he doesn’t want to know they exist.
Scrooge himself is a rich man who has in his life come to regard everyone else as beneath him. He locks himself away in his office and counts his coin but doesn’t spend it. This miserly hermit is visited by a ghost and four spirits, the ones who will change his life. Jacob Marley, played with devilish good humor by the director himself, frightens Scrooge with his tale of after-life woe. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” Marley intones to a quivering Scrooge. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
This is a story known by almost everyone. Three ghosts will visit Scrooge, and it is only through the knowledge they give him that he may have the opportunity to change, to avoid the same fate as his old friend and partner. Scrooge rediscovers his own origins and learns about the lives of Bob Cratchit and his nephew, Fred. His bitterness and hatred cannot survive the glaring light of scrutiny.
Solid performances abound
His guides on this journey are the three spirits. Jodi Meyers is the light-hearted and spritely Ghost of Christmas Past who shows Scrooge how he came to be the person he is. John Lenda, bedecked in robes and a red beard, intones as the giant Ghost of Christmas Present. (“He isn’t that big,” my daughter said.) Mr. Lenda packs a powerful punch as he departs the stage after introducing Scrooge to the Child of Ignorance and the Child of Want, throwing Scrooge’s own words back at him. “Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?” It is a chilling moment for Scrooge who has forgotten his own meager upbringing and has, like so many others do, passed off charity as something for the weak, as something to be derided.
It is the Ghost of Christmas Future, hauntingly portrayed by a masked Mark Tyler, who finally frightens the light back into Scrooge’s heart by showing him his ultimate end: death.
My daughter warmed up to the play by the time intermission hit. And when she won the raffle, a finely illustrated copy of the original Dickens work, she was elated. “Dad, can I read it now?” she asked as she came off stage from accepting the prize. Maybe this, too, will be her favorite Christmas book.
A Christmas Carol, directed by Mark Tyler, produced by Kathryn Redden, will be performed at the Washington Academy and High School Theatre on December 16 and 17 at 7pm, and December 18 at 2pm. Tickets available at the door or at the LSPAC website. LSPAC has partnered with the Maryland Food Bank, so bring along a canned food item to donate at the performance.