For most people brought up in western culture for the past century-and-a-half, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a familiar story – even if we haven’t actually read it in years (or at all), we still know it so well that we can usually recite chunks of it by heart.
That’s because, since its first publication in 1843, it has been one of the most frequently dramatized pieces of literature in history. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from cold-hearted miser to joyful philanthropist has been told and retold so many times that it has arguably become as much a fixture of Christmas tradition as putting presents under the tree.
For many, the holiday season is never complete without revisiting this classic at least once. Many others, however, avoid it at all costs – for them, having to sit through it one more time seems like a fate worse than – to borrow a phrase from Scrooge himself – being boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their heart.
If you are in this latter group, you’d be well-advised to make an exception for the new adaptation currently gracing the stage at the Geffen Playhouse – a one-man performance by Tony-winning actor Jefferson Mays that will make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.
Based on the edited version that Dickens himself used for public readings of the novella during his lifetime, the script (devised by Mays and his wife, Susan Lyons, along with director Michael Arden) covers all its best-known passages while also making use of its powerfully descriptive prose – so much a part of the story’s detail but usually eschewed in favor of visual representation by most enacted versions. These help to evoke not only the physical environment of the tale’s 19th setting, but also its grim realities – as well as the mindset of the author, ever the social reformer, in the face of the prevailing moral and ethical attitudes of the day.
Serving as both narrator and cast, Mays spends 90 riveting minutes conjuring Dickens’ story with as much freshness as if he were making it up himself. He uses the author’s language to create the entire world in which the action takes place, bringing the atmosphere of Victorian London – the sights, the sounds, even the smells – to vivid life within our minds. He transforms himself into each character, making each one distinct and individual enough that there can be no confusion.
His remarkable performance would be enough to capture us even on a bare stage under a spotlight – but under Arden’s delicate orchestration, this production complements the actor’s work with the kind of elegantly simple stagecraft that reminds us what a magical experience theater can be. A revolving platform and an ever-shifting array of sets – in conjunction with chiaroscuro lighting, delicate projections and an ingeniously engineered sound design – add layers of concrete reality which enhance the power of the words to transport us into Dickens’ imagination from within our own.
Taken together, these elements combine to give us a sparkling vision of this oft-told tale, but it goes even further than that by illuminating the elements within it that have been obscured by so much repetition.
Most strikingly, it reminds us how much of “A Christmas Carol” is a meditation on death. Before the show even begins, an open coffin greets the audience from the stage, as if we were taking our seats for a funeral; this imagery is bookended by a graveyard tableau that closes the evening on a melancholy note – reminding us that, though we may change our future by choice, nothing can change the absolute fact of our mortality. A grim observation, to be sure, but one that underscores Dickens’ heartfelt admonition for us to make each other’s lives brighter, however we may, while we are still here.
This theme goes hand in hand, of course, with another aspect of the story that is often overlooked in its obviousness – the fact that Dickens’ beloved Christmas classic is, unapologetically, a ghost story. Arden and company make full use of its spookier elements, setting the mood with gloomy lighting and a low, ominous drone which lingers throughout the opening scenes; the interaction between Scrooge and Marley’s ghost, so often undercut by humor, is a deadly serious affair here, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is an authentically terrifying apparition; even the gentler spirits of Christmas Past and Present are possessed of an eerie solemnity that never lets Scrooge – or the audience – get too comfortable. Add to these portrayals the sudden noises and other such “jump scares” that the show liberally employs throughout, and this version of “A Christmas Carol” plays almost like a horror movie.
Lastly, the production achieves much of its power by treating the story with the immediacy of the here-and-now. We are not merely watching a play – we are part of it. Mays, who frequently breaks the fourth wall and interacts with the audience, is actively telling us a story; the events he describes may be from a time long gone by, but he is delivering them to us in a modern era fraught with social ills – an era which, in many ways, is not so different from the one in which Scrooge and his creator lived. It’s impossible not to hear modern-day attitudes reflected back to us in the nearly two-century-old words we hear from the stage.
This is ultimately why the Geffen’s “Christmas Carol” rises beyond the level of heartwarming holiday tradition. It brings a contemporary relevance to material so well-known as to have become virtually meaningless, allowing us to put ourselves more completely in the shoes of its characters. It mines the emotional core of the story with insight and sincerity, striking deeply resonant chords which allow us to participate in Scrooge’s redemptive journey – and recognize it as our own.
For those of us feeling jaded by divisive rhetoric, toxic consumerism, social media artificiality and the me-first narcissism that seems to have gripped our current world in a choke-hold, this dazzling production might be just the Christmas miracle we need.
“A Christmas Carol” runs at the Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Ave.) through Dec.16. Tickets available at geffenplayhouse.org.