A funny thing happened to me last night. Even though my tree is decorated and my holiday plans are made, it didn’t really feel like Christmas had started. And then the lights went up on Actors Theatre of Louisville’s “A Christmas Carol,” and it did.
Maybe it’s the stirring addition this year of a solemn opening carol, accompanied by a lone fiddler (Tom Cunningham). Maybe it’s the knowledge that next year’s production, which director Drew Fracher will revamp, will look, sound and feel different, even as Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miserable loner to man of the people remains fundamentally unchanged since 1843.
I know, I know. That’s a seriously sentimental statement. Look, I’m no Scrooge, but I didn’t grow up in Louisville, so unlike so many of my fellow residents, I came to this particular ritual (Actors is now in its 38th year of staging Barbara Field’s adaptation) fairly late in life. And though I’ve been attending productions of “A Christmas Carol” at Actors Theatre for years, I suppose the full weight of tradition didn’t really take hold until last night, when I drank in Paul Owen’s Victorian London set that I knew was on its final year of use. It’s served the production well, lasting nearly twice as long as it was meant (the production was due for a refurb during the Great Recession, and, like many of us, Actors Theatre made do with what they had instead), but isn’t there something bittersweet about knowing ahead of time that this is the last year we will engage in this particular tradition in exactly this manner? How often do we know that going in?
And then there are the kids in the audience all decked out in velvet frocks and sweater vests, sucking on those giant peppermint sticks, and excited couples on holiday dates starting traditions of their own, and boisterous groups of friends who haven’t skipped a year in decades. The whole scene is pretty irresistible.
And some stories endure for a reason. Narrator Tyrone Mitchell Henderson brings Dickens’ wickedly funny and powerful prose to life with just the right lift of the eyebrow, and William McNulty, who has played this iteration of Scrooge for twelve productions now, brings all the pain and longing buried deep inside the prickly businessman to the surface.
The spirits are also irresistible, with the magic of Lindsey Noel Whiting (Ghost of Christmas Past) flipping and soaring Scrooge through time on her aerial silks and the hearty bombast of David Ryan Smith’s Ghost of Christmas Present contrasting starkly against Larry Bull’s tormented, haunted, “dead to begin with” Jacob Marley. Andy Gaukel returns in jolly fine form as the comic relief as Mr. Fezziwig and Nephew Fred, and little Vaughn Ramirez might be the sweetest, tiniest Tiny Tim Cratchit yet.
Some scenes are particularly poignant in this production, chiefly the final exchange between young Ebenezer (acting apprentice Casey Worthington) and Belle (Maya Lawson), the lovely fiancée he lost to greed and ugly ambition, and the Cratchit family Christmas dinner, when Scrooge’s beleaguered clerk Bob (Samuel Taylor) toasts Scrooge’s health and his loving wife Mrs. Cratchit (Celina Dean) nearly refuses. One scene highlights how easily we can forget to love, while the other reminds us it’s not so hard, if only we allow it.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 23 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.