Fort Worth — Charles Dickens famously begins one of literature’s great modern myths, A Christmas Carol, with “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.”
As does writer/actor Tom Mula in his Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, published two decades ago. From there it veers from the original, keeping some of the same characters but told from the POV of Marley, who, as a young patron of A Christmas Carol in which Mula played Ebenezer Scrooge told him after a performance, “got a raw deal.”
How true. Marley, Scrooge’s business partner and now no-doubt-dead, jump-starts Scrooge on this amazing journey of redemption with the help of three spirits, and then poor Marley has to spend the rest of his days in torment. If the whole wearing-of-heavy-chains thing is any indication of eternal damnation, that is.
Mula’s story is told in a beautifully wrought narrative and is perfect for a theatrical adaptation. Actually, no adaptation needed—just one actor speaking Mula’s words in the tradition of great storytelling.
As a theater piece it debuted in 1998 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and it’s amazing that it has taken this long for a local theater to pick it up. Kudos to Stage West, which kicks off its first full season in its Studio Theatre with Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, directed by Garret Storms.
A work like this, with no traditional stage directions, becomes a blank slate for the director, and Storms again asserts himself as one of the area’s finest young directors. He populates the small thrust stage with various playing areas, props and costumes that the sole performer can use. Storms also does sound design, costumes (with Peggy Kruger-O’Brien) and set (with Nate Davis). Props and set décor are by Lynn Lovett.
But his smartest achievement is in the casting: Emily Scott Banks.
We’re in an age in which casting choices don’t have to be so traditional in terms of gender and skin color. The biggest current example is, of course, Broadway’s Hamilton, for which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the parts of the country’s founding fathers for actors of color—and has said they could be played by women.
For anyone familiar with the local acting talent pool, Banks needs no introduction. Here she keeps the story thoroughly engaging as we follow Jacob Marley’s journey from the underworld to save Scrooge, like Orpheus in reverse.
There are characters familiar and new, such as the Record Keeper, and some back-story of Marley. Banks makes a few physical changes, such as adding a coat or hat, or using an upside-down table as another prop. But it’s really about subtle vocal shifts as she moves through the story and characters. Sometimes it only takes a sideways grin, pursed lip or arched eyebrow to convey intent or tone.
Just about the only flaw in the production—which has been extended for three more performances, now closing Dec. 27—is that it does not need an intermission (the program says there is not one, but there is), which breaks the momentum. But, it’s a chance to grab a drink from Stage West’s café.
At a stage production of A Christmas Carol, you expect a warm-fuzzy ending; and in this tale, that happens. Coupled with Nate Davis’ magical lighting, it’s even more heartwarming than Tiny Tim announcing “God bless us, everyone.”