“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Thus Charles Dickens opens his evergreen tale A Christmas Carol, told and retold in myriad ways since it was published in December 1843. In 2020, it’s coming to your ears for free thanks to Resident Ensemble Players (REP).
This lovely new adaptation, by Sara Valentine and Michael Boudewyns, is well-told and true to the novella, with a production performed by REP’s always-excellent cadre of actors and helmed seamlessly by Kathleen Pirkl Tague (in her directorial debut.)
Phantoms of Christmas
“The air fills with phantoms” as the Narrator (Mic Matarrese) begins this tale of a Christmas Eve in the ice-cold accounting office of Ebenezer Scrooge (Lee E. Ernst), a man so frosty that he “carried his own low temperature always about with him.” Long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit (Michael Gotch) is ready for Christmas Day (his sole, grudgingly given annual holiday) as Scrooge’s avuncular nephew Fred (René Thornton Jr.) bounds in to invite his uncle to a holiday supper.
Fred’s invitation is rendered in vain, and Scrooge leaves to spend Christmas Eve alone in his gloomy rooms. As he enters, his brass door knocker suddenly transforms into the face of former partner Jacob Marley (Stephen Pelinski), dead seven years ago this day. That night, Scrooge is magically visited by three spirits: Ghosts of Christmases Past (Elizabeth Heflin), Present (Pelinski), and Yet to Come take him on nocturnal journeys that are transformational. When he awakes on Christmas morning, Scrooge the unforgiveable curmudgeon is a new man.
Valentine and Boudewyns utilize the author’s strong dialogue and vivid descriptions, rendering them mostly as Dickens wrote them. The story is packed with juicy, delicious bits of description and repartee that are often food-based (the dead Marley is described as looking like “a bad lobster in a dark cellar” with “more of gravy than the grave” about him) that are preserved and served up for the actors to feast upon.
Under Pirkl Tague’s direction (and aided by the canny adaptation), the REP company skillfully navigates the potential shoals of this 19th-century work. Overdone in any area, the tale can become either treacly, overdone, or tedious. Here, the company ably balances the enthusiastic melodrama of Dickens’s ghost story, the aching fear of loss and failure that he explores, and the ultimate joy of Scrooge’s redemption.
The sound of Dickens
For its success, audio drama also depends on sound design and engineering, both excellent here. Eileen Smitheimer’s perfectly balanced soundscape (bells, chains, roars, and so much more) comes forward or recedes at just the right times. Well-sung music (from a 2014 performance by Paul Head’s University of Delaware Chorale) underscores Dickens’ central message, especially apt in the choice to thread Alf Houkom’s mystical setting of the “Rune of Hospitality” throughout the production. Pristine audio engineering was by Ryan P. McGinty and Joel Farley.
Realizing A Christmas Carol’s eerie and heartwarming aspects alike, this production amplifies the author’s intent. Valentine and Boudewyns utilized the strength of his words, and Pirkl Tague’s direction clarifies the message of transformation while music and sound intertwine thoughtfully with the narrative.
A narrative gift
Dickens’s character names have entered the lexicon, so iconic that it’s easy to overlook how his nomenclature functions as character description. And his ability to create a mood is especially apparent when the text is read aloud. In fact, Dickens was a famous oral interpreter of his own work, packing in audiences wherever he appeared. He also often published in serial form to keep his audience engaged as he moved the story forward. This novella was not serialized, but the tale still brims with that cliff-hanger expertise.
In his brief preface to A Christmas Carol (one of the few times he was brief), Dickens “endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to . . . haunt [the reader’s] house pleasantly.” But these words belie the story’s overt moral message. Early on, the doomed Marley says, “Mankind is my business,” at which he has clearly failed because he wears in death “the heavy chain I forged in life.” It was a seminal Dickensian belief that people should care for one another, and here (as elsewhere) he fearlessly highlights what he sees as this abject failure in British Victorian society.
But Dickens’s moral message is always tempered by storytelling genius. And by staying close to this narrative gift, this REP production joins a long line of excellent adaptations that have far exceeded even Dickens’s own lofty expectations. So light a candle, settle in a comfortable chair, don’t look at any door knockers, and enjoy this calorie-free but totally satisfying holiday treat.
Image description: Actor Stephen Pelinski, who has gray hair and a short gray beard, speaks into a microphone in a home recording studio. He has a very focused expression.
What, When, Where
A Christmas Carol. Adapted by Sara Valentine and Michael Boudewyns from the novella by Charles Dickens, directed by Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Presented by the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) at the University of Delaware in partnership with WVUD 91.3 FM. Streaming for free through December 25, 2020. Listen via the REP website.