Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
A Christmas Carol
91 University Place
At the end of the first act of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, old curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge tumbles down a hole in the ground in 1843 London. At the beginning of the second act, he falls down from the sky until he lands on the stage.
But actually Scrooge, and this entire production of the classic holiday play, tumbles right into our hearts.
The play, which opened Friday, begins with bells ringing all over the theater. Then Tiny Tim -- the tiniest Tiny Tim there ever was -- limps to the middle of the stage, leaning on his slender crutch, to look at a decorated Christmas tree on a London street as snow falls. The street is soon filled with people shopping in the middle of the city and the play is off to yet another flying start.
The McCarter has produced the play for nearly forty years and no matter whose adaptation they use (this year it’s David Thompson’s) it's a luscious chestnut of a show.
The story is familiar. Crotchety old Scrooge, who treasures money above all else, is visited by three ghosts, those of Christmas past, present and future. They take him on tours of nineteenth-century London, where he views his life long ago, in his twenties; the present at the home of Tiny Tim and his father, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit; and the future, where he winds up gloomy and shaking in a cemetery next to his tombstone. The ghosts guide him on harrowing journeys through both London and the human heart. They change his view of the world.
What makes this particular production of the holiday story so exceptional is the acting and the special effects. This is the fifteenth year Michael Unger has directed the show, so he knows his way around old London as well as Dickens. He uses his actors as the centerpieces of the play, having them move through arguments, dances, parties and snowfalls, always eliciting joy or sadness from the audience. Unger has a real feel for both the play and the holidays, and it shows.
The drama shines amid the marvelous over-sized sets of Ming Cho Lee and the special effects of the production crew. There is a London street set that slides into the background to be replaced by a grim looking three-story high building that houses Scrooge’s home and several businesses. The set is flung open further to accommodate the Crachit home and the colorful Fezziwig’s party. There are doorknobs that turn into people’s heads, ghosts with magical powers and a sound system that roars throughout the theater. People tumble through the air, fall down into openings in the floor and dance the night away from one part of the stage to the other. Together, the acting company and the set designer bring Christmas early to audiences.
Graeme Malcolm is a splendid Scrooge. He is a tall, thin man with a full beard who snorts his “bahs” and “humburgs” throughout the story. He is a steel-skinned old fool at the start and a soft-hearted savior for all at the end. He carries off the transformation with a lot of skill and a lot of Christmas cheer. Malcolm is accompanied by a talented crew that includes Price Waldman as Bob Cratchit, Jams Ludwig as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, Annie O’Sullivan as his maid Mrs. Dilber, Justin Blanchard as young Jacob Marley, John Ahlin as the boisterous Fezziwig, David Kenner as the young Scrooge, and Kimiye Corwin as his girlfriend Belle. And, of course, thank goodness, there is little Kieran McKenna as Tiny Tim.
A Christmas Carol became a play just a year after its successful publication as a novel in 1843 (there were eight separate stage productions of it that first year in London alone), but it was never just a holiday play. It's much too dark for that. In the play, there is a moment when a large group of orphans is rushed across the stage to symbolize the huge amount of orphans, street urchins and child workers in England in 1843. Child labor abuse in England and in the U.S. in that era was notorious. Many children worked sixteen-hour days. It was not until 1842 that children were forbidden to work in the mines, where tens of thousands had toiled for years (the average live expectancy for miners was 25). The sixteen-hour day was not reduced to ten hours in Great Britain until 1847 (it was cut to that in most states in the U.S. in the late 1830s). Not surprisingly. Britain was riddled by strikes over working conditions throughout the early 1840s.
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens is critical of capitalism and the employer/employee system it fostered. Scrooge is a rich capitalist who is permitted by law to overwork and underpay his employees (such as Bob Crachit, who is thrilled to get Christmas Day off). It also highlights the lives of poor children, such as Tiny Tim and his siblings. Dickens had toured numerous hellholes where children lived, with and without families and even went down into Cornish mines to observe child workers there. The theme of an overcrowded city, crime and the troubles of the poor would appear again and again in his works, especially Oliver Twist.
Dickens himself was a victim of the child labor abuse system. When his father was put in debtors’ prison for three months, Dickens, twelve, was forced to work in a factory, usually at twelve- to sixteen-hour shifts.
PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theater. Choreography: Bob Ashfor;, Sets: Ming Cho Lee; Costumes: Jess Goldstein; Lighting: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound: Brian Ronan. The play is directed by Michael Unger.