The set-up: No matter how many theater companies produce A Christmas Carol each season - and there have been many versions this year (Houston Grand Opera's downer; Classical's faithful new adaptation; the Alley's extravaganza) - there's always room for another take on Charles Dickens' evergreen tale of misanthropic Scrooge and his yuletide redemption. In a limited run of only five performances at Theatre Southwest, wily veteran actor John Stevens reprises his acclaimed one-man show. Full of warmth and glad tidings, bushels of rich Dickensian text, and a cornucopia brimming with an actor's love of performing, this version is a beauty.
The execution: There's a grand tradition of "monopolylogue" (one man, many characters) to this cherished work that dates to the author himself, who went on extensive lecture tours in Europe and America reading from Carol. It is this spirit that Stevens mines so deftly and deeply.
Charles Dickens loved the theater. As the most famous, richest, and admired author in Victorian England, he couldn't get enough of the stage. He wrote numerous plays, acted in amateur theatrics, and was regarded as a perceptive director. His passion for the theater stayed with him all his life. (In 1858, the very married Dickens caused quite a scandal in London when he left his wife Catherine, who had given him ten children, and moved in with 18-year-old actress Ellen Ternan.) He once wrote that he had "a strong perception of character and oddity, and a natural power of reproducing in my own person what I have observed in others."
Dickens is the most theatrical of all writers, his scenes brilliantly crafted as if meant to be staged. He sets scenes with precision, fills characters with action, and knows a good exit line. Although he started his "public readings" for charity, the clamor was so incessant he quickly grasped the financial opportunities. There were other "readers" of the era, but megastar Dickens had the best material. And he loved to perform.
As does Stevens.
Seeing this rival on stage, Dickens, using his own words when he was writing Carol, would no doubt, "weep, then laugh, then weep again" at Stevens' dexterous, finely appointed performance.
Dickens would act selections from his novels, but he never moved from behind his reader's desk set up on a table. The simple setting would be framed with maroon drapes, and he was brightly lighted so all could see his face and hands, which were, by every contemporary account, highly expressive. Stevens' setting is minimal but more varied: an easy chair where he can "read" to us as Narrator; a table to represent Scrooge's counting house; a square bed for the miser's cramped and dingy room; a worn desk for young Scrooge's school days; a raggedy table and bench for the Cratchits' meager home; and, later, a headstone upon which will be projected the fateful occupant's name. All else is elegantly conjured through Dickens' ripe Victorian prose and Steven's immaculate impersonations.
The novella is expertly condensed to hit all the classic high spots: dreadful Marley dragging his chain; the three Christmas Spirits (Past, Present, and Yet To Come) who haunt Scrooge; the wretchedly poor but happy Cratchits; fiancée Belle who tearily relinquishes young Scrooge to her rival, his pursuit of profit; the two exasperated solicitors who get the coldest of shoulders from Scrooge when asked for a donation for the poor; jolly Fezziwig; haggard rag picker Old Joe, who barters for Scrooge's bed curtains, blankets, and the shirt he's to be buried in.
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By the end at Scrooge's ultimate redemption, you'd swear Stevens (in black turtleneck and pants) was wearing a nightshirt all along, the telling is so vivid. Of course, you might also swear you could taste the greasy fog of industrial London; or see the claw-like hands of the dismal figures of Want and Ignorance that Christmas Present reveals under his sumptuous green mantle; or smell Mrs. Cratchit's steaming plum pudding.
Stevens describes the scenes and depicts each character with consummate skill. His "grasping, covetous" Scrooge is pinched and stooped - and those eyebrows are real; Christmas Present is a magnanimous outpouring of Scottish burr and hearty conviviality; Marley an eerie wail of torment; Belle is pale resignation; Fezziwig all ancient cheer and rosy cheek; Christmas Past a calm, resigned host. When Scrooge at last redeemed flings open the bedroom window to see if it's really Christmas morning, Stevens takes in a deep breathe, as if Scrooge has finally been cleansed. It's a lovely moment that passes in a blink, but it's as lasting as that new, gleeful twinkle in his eye.
There was no program at the premiere, but I assume Ron Harty, the sound designer of the previous productions, should be credited for the subtle and atmospheric layers he adds to Dickens' sumptuous word feast: children playing, midnight chimes, Marley's clanking chains, and wisps of carols. Director Bonnie Hewitt keeps the tale moving with adroit shifts of focus: the Narrator's in his chair, suddenly Scrooge is in his bed, or the scene plays right in front of us.
The verdict: While the Alley is to be commended for its stage wizardry and large cast; or Classical for its inventive, minimal staging; there's always a solid reason for a solo version of Dickens' magnificent classic. John Stevens' adaptation at Theatre Southwest is like opening the smallest present under the tree and finding, within, the entire world. That makes for a very merry Christmas. I think Dickens would love this production best of all. A Christmas Carol continues on December 23, and 24 at Theatre Southwest, 8844-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets online at www.theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $12.