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MEANINGFUL HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE: Classic Dickens tale gets a moving, wonderful revamp

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“Back by popular demand” might be the current mantra of the cast of “A Christmas Carol,” currently playing in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre at Thalain Hall. Thalian Hall Cube Theatre and Theatre Exchange have resurrected the crowd-pleasing classic adapted from Dickens’ novella by Rob Zapple, Mathew Faison and Bruce Hoard. A staple of the holiday season—especially in Wilmington during the early 2000s—Zapple has directed productions of it around the country.

Mike O’Neill, the narrator, recounts a memory from when he was 8 and living in the Midwest at an itinerant camp during The Great Depression. Things were looking pretty grim during the holidays. Then John Charles Winthrop III (Tony Rivenbark) and Michael (Robb Mann)—famous for playing Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit on the vaudeville circuit—run out of gas at the camp on their way to a Chicago performance. In a truly wonderful set-up, the camp dwellers bargain for a performance of “A Christmas Carol” in exchange for gasoline. What develops is a lovely, creative and heartwarming staging of a story that we all think we know. Somehow the adaptation captures its original magic and fills it with a reminder of what Dickens’ intended: people as transformative tools of goodness.

Utilizing the objects of the camp and the props of the steamer trunk the actors travel with, Winthrop, Michael and the Narrator begin to unfold the familiar strains of the story. They enlist the surrounding camp dwellers for all additional roles. We meet the friendly, good-natured Nephew Fred, played with George Domby’s huge and contagious grin. Scrooge comes home to the distressing sight of his former partner, Jacob Marley, played by Tom Briggs, who turns in a performance that is so arresting it will make audiences re-evaluate their lives; I mean, “woah!”

The fabulous antidote arrives in the form of Jamila Ericson as The Ghost of Christmas Past. She brims with love and joy, but has a tinge of melancholy and remorse. I can’t really imagine anyone better for the part.

During the flashback  sequences, we meet Young Ebenezer, played by Eddie Waters. It must be intimidating to play a young Tony Rivenbark—local theatre stalwart, director of Thalian Hall, and performer in over 170 shows, one of which includes playing the iconic Ebenezer multiple times. But Waters meets the challenge, and gives us the verve and enthusiasm of a young Ebenezer discovering love, life and the potential of the world. Somehow this disparate group of desperate people manage to bring Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig’s (R. Manley Lucas and Laurene Perry, respectively) party come to life—complete with a loving mistletoe encounter from the host couple. They are so darn adorable and jolly that if the story ended there, I would have been happy.

But the harder parts are still to come: The Ghost of Christmas Present (R. Manly Lucas) has to show Scrooge how the world is: Nephew Fred and his new wife (Marie Chonko) are having a party that he has stoutly refused to attend. The Cratchit household makes merry in spite of having so little to be merry about, in Scrooge’s opinion. But Reno Ray as Peter Cratchit getting his first collar and job is highly convincing as a young man ushering through this right of passage. Actually, every moment of the Cratchit family is pitch-perfect.

Robb Mann and Rachel Lewis-Hilburn as the parents of this wonderful tribe are inspiring to watch as they find joy, laughter and strength in each other. Later, during the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence, they truly moved me to wipe the tears from running down my face as they address their shattered world without Tiny Tim.

Speaking of Tiny Tim, if Jameson Zapple doesn’t steal the audience’s heart when he delivers his most famous line, they haven’t paid attention over two-and-a-half hours. He hits the nail on the head with the message the cast has worked so hard to forge.

Hats off to the director, Rob Zapple; the combination of the adaptation and the performances really make the classic a journey of rediscovery. A lot of that rests on Rivenbark’s shoulders. Part of why I don’t tend to enjoy productions of “A Christmas Carol” is that making Scrooge’s transformation believable is beyond many actors. But do I believe Rivenbark? Is he genuinely frightened? Is this a real transformation or just a flash in the pan? He got me—hook, line and sinker—mostly because he makes the shift happen slowly over the course of the show. He struggles, he weeps, and he laments his failings and mistakes genuinely. It is more than convincing.

Mirroring Rivenbark is O’Neill’s work, looking back on a memory and sharing it to remind us what living this story means. He has to keep things moving and bridge the story and the fourth wall with the audience, repeatedly. If there is one change I would like to see in the show, it would be more time with O’Neill spent in light. Ostensibly, these are the shadows of his memory, so leaving him in darkness for many of his lines can be a valid artistic choice, but he is so much fun to watch onstage, and the love he radiates for this memory and these people is something I just want to drink in with my eyes as often as possible.

Gary Ralph Smith designed an interesting and multi-functional set for the intimate space of the studio theatre. There are some fun pieces that have to be hidden and maneuvered carefully to make the magic work. His set certainly makes it possible within the confines of the story.

Neither the quality of the set nor the wonderful performances are really a surprise. Since Thalian Hall launched their cube theatre, all shows have been hallmarks of what great productions look like, including attention to detail and quality performances with actors who play the moment and pass on that feeling to the audience. They have two more shows announced this year: “Mary Tudor” in February and a production of “The Fantasticks,” directed by Shane Fernando, in May.

In the meantime, give the kids a meaningful holiday gift: the experience of live theatre at “A Christmas Carol.” It is an experience to remember for years to come.

A Christmas Carol
Dec. 17-19, 21, 7 p.m.
Dec. 19-20, 2 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $25 •

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