The Alliance Theatre’s annual “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 27.
A HOLIDAY SEASON without A Christmas Carol?
Not a ghost of a chance.
That’s because Charles Dickens’ story of one miserly man’s whopper of a dream has it all: childhood magic, romantic encounters, good-deed doing, caroling, snow, mistletoe and even a Christmas goose that Mrs. Cratchit has stuffed with onion, sage and bread crumbs.
Above all, the story introduced to England in 1843 is a powerful cautionary tale that bears this message: It’s never too late to redeem oneself.
The task of redeeming bitter old Ebenezer Scrooge, who’s “immune to the joys of Christmas,” is huge. Dickens knew Scrooge could never convincingly change unless he had the living daylights scared out of him. So he wrote not one, but four ghosts, into the story.
According to John Mullan, a scholar writing for the British Library, “The ghost story as a distinct and popular genre was the invention of the Victorians [and] Dickens was hugely influential in establishing the genre’s popularity.”
The ghosts in Dickens’ yuletide chestnut, Mullan says, “are by turns comic, grotesque and allegorical.”
“Each ghost is quite different from the next and has a specific purpose within Scrooge’s full journey,” says Rosemary Newcott, who has directed the Alliance Theatre staging for the past 15 years.
The company has presented A Christmas Carol in one form or another for 26 seasons. Again this year it’s David H. Bell’s 1999 adaptation, with some revisions that were done in 2013. A recent change concerns the Ghost of Christmas Future — but that surprise is being saved for audience.
It’s important to point out, says Newcott, that the ghosts “are not just scary.”
“Like any of the characters,” she says, “they play many different levels. Dickens is saying so much more than ‘This is a ghost story.’ It’s a morality tale above all. The essential story helps us recognize the compassion we should have for all human beings, no matter their circumstances.”
Before he settles in for a most unsettling Christmas Eve slumber, Scrooge is disturbed by the anguished ghost of Jacob Marley, his seven-years-dead business partner.
Marley’s mission is to frighten Scrooge into realizing what could happen if he doesn’t change. “It’s pretty critical, because he’s the total setup,” Newcott says. Still, Scrooge is a tough nut to crack. Was that really Marley’s ghost? Maybe it’s just … indigestion?
Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past, a role that Elizabeth Diane Wells has inhabited happily for the past five years. In Bell’s adaptation, her ghost is like a fairy tale: warm, lovely and compassionate, as she shows Scrooge the errors he’s made in his life.
“I think of Elizabeth as being so — otherworldly,” Newcott says. “She’s a beautiful woman and one of those actors who can walk into a different time period and you have the sense that she really belongs there.”
Before playing the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past, Wells understudied the role for 10 years and played young Scrooge’s beloved Belle. “The whole play is so complete in my head,” she says. “It follows you around the rest of the year. But in a good way. ”
Wells’ spirit “is not really watching the past to see what happens. She’s rooting for him, she grieves with him, feels his pain. And she’s looking for signs of hope. She’s almost leading the audience to watch him.”
Actors who play the Ghost of Christmas Past generally “summon up feelings of regret in their own lives,” Newcott says. “It’s sobering in a way. It reminds me of the bittersweet moments in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ”
Enter the Ghost of Christmas Present to inject some humor. Bart Hansard, a character onstage and off, has done the role for 11 seasons. His ghost is “representative of the joyful bounty that life offers us,” says Newcott.
“Bart has a booming voice, a great big laugh. He embraces fun, food, drink, family — all the good things about life. He puts up Christmas lights in the rehearsal hall and brings toys to the kids in the cast. He’s the one who brings cookies to rehearsal. He’s a regular Father Christmas.”
Wells and Hansard prepare for their roles each year by rereading Dickens’ original text, “always such a pleasure, especially because our script really honors it,” says Wells.
While the production with its elaborate costumes, scenery and special effects might be “a bear of a show to pull off, it’s such a joy to return to every year,” Newcott says. “The cast, the crew — we have become a family.”
For the full Christmas Carol family, the holiday season revolves around this production. Wells says she must always have her holiday shopping done by October. As for Hansard, “There are days when you think, ‘I’m getting too old for this.’ But truthfully, this is the kind of show that keeps on giving. We have hundreds of people wassailing with us every night. We are Ground Zero Christmas.”
Revisit previous seasons of A Christmas Carol with these posts: