Coal Miser A Christmas Carol

Among the charms of December in Houston is the Alley Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens's amusing, sweet tale about an old man who finds his heart one cold Christmas Eve. This year's Carol, directed by James Black, is based on the version adapted and originally directed by the great Michael Wilson, former associate director of the Alley, who directed some of its most memorable shows before leaving nine years ago to become artistic director at Hartford Stage. Relatively simple, the production is full of laughs and good fun; it's perfect for children, who often perch on the knees in their theater seats, decked out in yards of velvet or starched cotton, looking like tiny throwbacks to the Victorian world they're watching with saucer eyes. There's also enough fog to make the story a little bit scary as it weaves its way through Dickens's gray Victorian world.

Bustling 19th-­century London hurries across Tony Straiges's lean set. Framed by two wooden staircases that wind up to a narrow wooden bridge, the stage remains mostly empty throughout the production. Busy folks in long coats and big skirts rush along the precarious-looking bridge that hangs across the stage.

Scrooge (whom Black double-cast with himself and David Rainey) bah humbugs at center stage, bent over his slender, unadorned writing desk, perpetually counting his money. Up in the corner hovers poor Bob Cratchit (Chris Hutchison), who begs to put one small piece of coal on the fire so that he might warm his icy fingers. But Scrooge is adamantly sour and...well...Scroogy. No coal! No warmth! Just threats and more threats. When solicitors (Paul Hope and John Tyson) come asking for money for the hungry, Scrooge snarls the words that will haunt him later that night — "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" To the idea that some folks would rather die than go to such places, Scrooge cruelly barks that they should go ahead and "decrease the surplus population!" And when his nephew Fred (Brandon Hearns­berger) arrives bearing gifts and a dinner invitation, Scrooge declares that he'll celebrate Christmas his own way — not at all.

He packs up his money, bundles on his coat and wanders out into the night for his favorite chore of the day — collecting debt from a sad little crew of raggedy street folk. The unfortunates who owe Scrooge money include a sweet old doll seller (Bettye Fitzpatrick), who must hand over one of her prized dolls to Scrooge; Bert, the cider vendor (James Belcher), who gives Scrooge a bottle of his wares; and Mr. Marvel (a very lively Justin Doran), the clock seller, who gives up his precious steam clock to keep the old man at bay. Ah, Scrooge! He wanders about the city on Christmas Eve, bestowing sorrow wherever he goes.

And so begins the old man's chain-­rattling story of redemption. Night falls, and Jacob Marley (who's been double-cast with Jeffrey Bean and Todd Waite) rises out of the stage floor in a rage of fiery smoke and shakes his mighty chain at Scrooge, warning him of the busy night to come — three ghosts and three lessons, which will hopefully save the old man from Jacob's obviously hellish fate.

But you were a good man of business, laments Scrooge. "Business," spits out Marley. "Mankind should have been my business!" Scrooge clearly has a long way to go before he understands what Christmas is all about.

Of course, the ghosts take care of that, escorting the old crank on a journey through time and space. The story might be fantastic, but Dickens certainly understood the psychology of Scrooge's stingy heart. We learn how badly the old man was treated as a child, and the audience feels its heart grow right alongside Scrooge's, brushing up on the lessons of empathy and kindness at the center of the miser's mystical travels.

A Christmas Carol

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Lee Williams