Fort Worth — Lights shine in the darkness, pinpoints of humanity and hope in a sea of shadows.
An old man is offered a second chance at life and happiness…by another old man who has things to learn himself. And we in the seats feel the thump of our own hearts, wondering how often we fail to see, in those moments of small choices, that each might lead us to a new path, a life-changing re-direction, a way to turn regret into rejoicing.
True to the meaning and spirit of Christmas—a ghost story to give you the shivers, make you laugh, and make you think—Stage West’s reprise of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is as welcome as hot cider on a chilly night.
If you saw the company’s area premiere of Tom Mula’s short play in 2015, you’ll be happy to hear that many elements of that production are back. And if you missed it, now’s your chance. Garret Storms again directs with a fine sense of play and imagination—and Emily Scott Banks' emotional generosity and precise feel for characterization, as she whips from one role to another, develops a positively kaleidoscopic beauty. Perpetually in motion, she prowls and paces—adding a top hat here, an accent there—to vividly inhabit the characters of this surprising and satisfying variation on Charles Dickens’ much-loved A Christmas Carol.
A Chicago-based actor/playwright/professor, Mula played the Goodman Theatre’s Scrooge for more than 400 performances over seven years. Somewhere along the way, he recalls talking with a friend’s young daughter—who complained that Scrooge’s long-dead business partner Jacob Marley (clanking his chains, warning Scrooge to change his ways before it’s too late) had been given “a raw deal.” He does a good deed, then goes straight back to hell? Not fair. Mula agreed, and the result was a thought-provoking and emotional tale (first a novella, then a play) of “what else” might have happened to poor, doomed Marley.
This Christmas Carol, then, begins not with Scrooge but Marley, in the dark (literally) about why he’s 1) dead, and 2) in a hellish place called The Counting House, being grilled by a dry-humored spirit known as the Record Keeper. Marley is told that he—after a life spent counting his wealth and never lifting a finger for anyone—has “come up short in his accounts” with You Know Who. (The Keeper doesn’t name names, but points a finger straight upward with a shrug and a smirk.) Marley is offered a high-stakes chance to change his fate: he has 24 hours (or until the cock crows) to make miserly, mean Ebenezer Scrooge forever change his ways. “I’ll be damned” says Marley, if he’ll do anything to help the cold-eyed partner who never became a friend.
But on second thought…there’s that “get out of hell” card. Why not try?
Banks jumps eagerly in and out of characters—Marley, Scrooge, the Record Keeper, the visiting spirits of Dickens’ original (though tweaked in unpredictable ways). And there’s one addition: the Bogle, a tiny “trickster” spirit out of Celtic lore who is assigned to help Marley (can this little pest earn some wings?) but can’t resist complicating the action in ways that amuse him/her/it, if not Marley.
The script quotes Dickens’ own dialogue sparingly, but Mula’s language—flowery, thunderous, passionate, and full of irony and humor—is close kin to the original, and gives Banks plenty to work with. A born actor, Dickens turned every public “reading” into a stage show, playing every character himself at full throttle. He would have loved (and recognized) Banks’ bravura multi-character performance.
Stage West’s studio space (renovated and larger since the 2015 production) works well as a compressed, up-close setting for this intimate show, and uses the period details that come with the building: high ceilings, slanted industrial windows, a glimpse of rough stone. Storms’ sound design (cold winds and creaking, the clank of chains) and L.W. Miller’s sepia lighting wash atmospherically over a monotone set (also by Miller) of angled, multi-level wooden platforms—perches on both sides of the stage perfect for the play’s quick changes of scene and mood. The costumes, by Storms and Peggy Kruger O’Brien, include Banks’ booted, deep-toned “pants role” outfit—contemporary but somehow timeless—and costumes that double as onstage props: a top hat and scarf, a scruffy overcoat and midnight-dark cloak, all ready to be donned and doffed in an instant. Lynn Lovett keeps track of all that, plus the non-wearable objects: a street lamp and ladder; a book of Dickens’ Christmas Carol lying open and ready; crates, suitcases, cash boxes, trunks; an open jewel box; and a collection of oil lamps and candles, unlit—but waiting.
Marley begins to understand that Scrooge’s journey is his as well. He too is seeing, pondering, reassessing matters of life and death…and wondering what sort of spiritual 2.0 might be possible for the dried-up old soul he’s been. As he moves across the stage, lighting candles that represent souls in distress, the tough old man is tender, suddenly compassionate and connected. How bright could his light shine?
And a new thought fills the heart: If there’s hope for the worst of us—two “squeezed lemons” like Marley and Scrooge—maybe the rest of us can get there, too.
O Jacob Marley!
Heaven and the Christmas-time be praised for this!
I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843