In my business, December means A Christmas Carol. Given the repeated exposure, one hopes for something to distinguish a production: a gripping performance, a memorable adaptation, luscious physical surroundings. This holiday season, a new streaming version enacted by Jefferson Mays offers all this and more, resulting in one of the most engrossing assumptions of Charles Dickens’ classic novella you’re ever likely to encounter.
Worth the price
Mays, a Tony-winning Broadway regular, debuted this interpretation at the Los Angeles Geffen Playhouse in 2018. He and director Michael Arden filmed it last month in New York City, as a benefit for more than 50 theaters nationwide that remain shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local recipients include Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope and George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. A portion of the somewhat steep—but ultimately justified—$50 rental fee goes directly to the participating institution selected by the viewer.
Arden’s production, conceived with production designer Dane Laffrey, translates masterfully to the small screen. Laffrey’s set contrasts the austerity of Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting house and meager chambers with the warm Christmases of his past, as well as the Cratchit family’s humble but loving hearth. Lighting designer Ben Stanton evokes the spectral world with chilling clarity, yet he stops short of overdoing the supernatural elements, allowing Dickens’ words to do the trick themselves. Subtle vocal manipulations differentiate the spirits who guide Scrooge on his redemptive journey. (Joshua D. Reid designed the sound.) Sufjan Stevens’s arrangement of “Silver and Gold” is deployed smartly to underscore the anticapitalist message at the heart of the tale.
A genuine revelation
Arden and Mays crafted their adaptation with Susan Lyons, who is Mays’s wife; they take Dickens’s own recitations as their template. Everything derives from the text, and the storytelling is expansive and enthralling, even when very little seems to be happening. As the sole performer, Mays becomes more than fifty characters, imbuing each with a distinctive personality. His Scrooge is not merely the miserly caricature we’ve come to know, but more a man haunted and hardened by a lifetime of pain. Mays speaks Scrooge’s lines in a voice more flinty than gruff, which suggests the tender core of the character, which needs only proper perspective to come out. His one-man invocation of the festive Fezziwig Christmas dance is a marvel worth the price of admission alone.
Mays avoids mawkishness. We are spared the syrupy figure of Tiny Tim and shown the extreme poverty of Dickensian London with an unflinching eye. Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future, conjured as a beastly shadow, contains all the gravity of his impending damnation. The lack of manipulation allows the viewer to fully embrace Scrooge’s conversion, which is portrayed here without pomp and circumstance, a hard-won but ultimately genuine mending of past wrongs. Mays’ performance wrenches well-earned tears, not coerced ones.
The adaptation is available to stream until January 3, and is appropriate for the entire family, whether age eight or 88. I can only hope its availability becomes a yearly tradition. I hope even more that next Christmas, I’ll be able to see Mays doing it somewhere on stage, in person.
Image description: A still from A Christmas Carol shows actor Jefferson Mays, a 55-year-old white man, as Ebenezer Scrooge. His wary face seems to float out of the dark, lit only by a candle he’s holding, which barely illuminates his hand, cuff, and 19th-century-style coat.
What, When, Where
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By Charles Dickens. Adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons, and Michael Arden. Directed by Michael Arden. Available to rent ($50) through January 3, 2021. achristmascarollive.com.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is closed-captioned.