Art has a power to transform the world. Sometimes that’s an immediate, provocative image or story forcing action. One could argue Charles Dickens’ work has impacted and shaped our modern mores in ways a few of us truly credit. While “Oliver Twist” expose details of the lives of children in workhouses in Victorian England, Dickens’ enduring gift to subsequent generations is the modern celebration of Christmas. “The Cricket on the Hearth” and “A Christmas Carol” are the most well-remembered of his holiday stories.
Dickens released a body of work in 1843 around the idea of holidays as a time for family, generosity, humility, redemption and celebration. Most famously “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted for stage, film, television and animation countless times. It’s a pillar of Western mythology, and traces the story of the personal transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, from a misery, lonely old man to a generous, loving person. It comes courtesy of an intervention by several ghosts who literally terrify him into making a profound life change—or as one of my regular theatre-going companions likes to put it: “the story of a man who goes to bed a Reagan Republican and wakes up as a FDR New Deal Supporter.”
Rob Zapple loves this story. He has directed an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that he put together with Matthew Faison (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) and Bruce Howard (“The Dukes of Hazzard”) 20 times. This rendition is set in a squatters camp in Missouri in 1932.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn narrates the events as a treasured memory from her childhood: a particularly bleak Christmas when their camp was visited by a stranded actor (Tony Rivenbark), famous for a one-man production of “A Christmas Carol.” The members of the camp bargain with him for reading a story in exchange for a much-needed can of gas to get to his next performance. Rather beautifully, he draws each into the play’s characters as the story unfolds.
Rivenbark has portrayed Scrooge many times on many stages. He remains my favorite Scrooge (next to Michael Caine) for a true, compelling, and believable transformation. Hilburn as the narrator is a rather inspired choice. Audiences already recognize her voice from WHQR’s Coastline, so they are primed for her thoughtful, gentle voice to tell us an important story we need to listen to. Combined with her soulful brown eyes, and a being that radiates thoughtfulness, is the perfect person to conduct the journey.
For all the narrator looks back on fondly, it is a ghost story, after all, designed to scare Scrooge into repenting of his miserly ways. J. R. Rodriguez gives one of the most frightening renditions of the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s departed business partner. It was positively Shakespearean: full on horror and damnation. This is not a ghost handling purgatory quietly or with any grace. He is angry … and dangerous. When Rivenbark falls backward in fear, the audience is right there with him. If anything, it is more pronounced because, even though Scrooge fears the ghostly apparition of Jacob Marley, he clearly has more of a rapport with his deceased miserly partner than with his vibrant, young nephew, Fred (Hal Cosec). Cosec is everything you want Fred to be: He has never met a stranger and he has a joke or a kind word for everyone.
The obvious difference in the level of comfort Rivenbark has with these two men is perhaps the most telling. As Scrooge meets each ghost—Christmas Past (Clare Kiley), Present (Clifton Ballard) and Future (Wesley McAdams)—the tableau they show play out before the audience. Zapple and the cast have made some familiar choices like at The Fezziwig’s party, but not every choice is clichéd. Joy J. James as the young Belle, Scrooge’s former fiancée, is not a wilting, quiet, retiring, tearful drip. Nope. Belle is angry, disappointed, hurt and making sure Scrooge knows he has made an irrevocable mistake. I’ve gotta say: It is one of the first times I’ve liked Belle.
Part of what Zapple and Dickens are both trying to communicate is we are all part of a larger web and fabric of life and, therefore, a community that makes our mutual survival possible. The visual choices for the production reflect as much: Everyone on stage pulls together props and scenery for the story from what is available at the camp. Together, they make magic come alive.
Children and their welfare were a recurring theme in Dickens’ work, and are important in “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not just in the form of Tiny Tim (Ian Klein) but also with the Cratchit’s other children, Belinda (Anika Hunt) and Peter (Jamison Zapple)—both of whom look like they should be running around a schoolyard, but are already working and contributing to their own family’s survival. It is heart-rending. The kids don’t over milk it; this is life. They are growing up and becoming important members of the family. In the Victorian period this was common and during the Depression. Any able-bodied family member was part of survival; school was a luxury. Watching how their childhood can be cut so short fills the audience’s hearts with sadness.
Adrian Varnam and Bob Russell provide a live music accompaniment that really is the last necessary piece for this show to work. If canned music appeared out of thin air, it would not make any of the frame story about a Depression camp believable. A fiddle and guitar bring it to life.
It is not lost on me as an audience member that Zapple, in addition to producing and directing “A Christmas Carol,” is a New Hanover County Commissioner at a time three commissioners are trying to eliminate quality-of-life services—public transportation, and hospital, among them—that make our area accessible to all. To say their attitude is Dickensian is kind if not too mild. But if they get their way, squatter camps with hungry children, unable to access medical services, food, education or basic necessities, will become too possible for many people. Indeed, if you think all is a thing of the past, I suggest you have a conversation with Randy Evans of Walking Tall Wilmington.
The Victorian period saw social reform: abolition of slavery in England and the U.S., expansion of education for children of all social classes, access to public sanitation, and a reduction of child labor. The social safety-net programs introduced by FDR’s administration during the Depression were transformative for American life. Right now many of those programs and ideals are under fire. When Scrooge asks “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” I can hear echoes of current commission meetings. This story has been close to Zapple’s heart for many years, but perhaps this year, as Zapple and one other commissioner fight an uphill battle for an equitable quality of life for all New Hanover County residents, the message is more pressing than ever.