A Word In Edgewise:  Ringing the Changes on “Carol” 2022

Charles Dickens’s words were codified in 1843, when first published as A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The novella, illustrated by John Leech, was published by London’s Chapman and Hall, and has been a holiday staple ever since. 

Changes in times and perceptions, through media unknown 179 years ago, have been no obstacle. Whether in film, which didn’t exist in Dickens’s time, on stage, in “comics” now morphed themselves to “graphic novels,” each re-creator, each director, each actor, brings his or her own take, their particular emphasis on emotion, merriment, spookiness, or political view. 

The first of numerous film adaptations was a 1908 silent–now lost to posterity–out of Chicago’s Essanay Studios while the Black and White MGM production released December 16,1938, featured Twin Cities resident Terry Kilburn (then ten, now 96 come this November 25) as Tiny Tim. 

Guthrie adapter Lavina Jadhwani returns, her lean retelling and Joseph Haj’s direction, hewing closely to Dickens’ words and wit. Their Scrooge is less cramped than he’s often portrayed, more willing from the start to change than being terrified into goodness. His “Lead me on” to the Spirit of Christmas Present takes the initiative and hints that much of his curmudgeon-ness may stem from his lonely, neglected childhood. Self-armored through the years by sovereigns and banknotes, Scrooge’s carapace is pierced by these Spirit quests, allowing warmth and fellowship to trickle in. 

Composer Jane Shaw threads the production with original songs and traditional carols to fill the vaster space of this year’s London set; movement and song enrich without distracting “business” for its own sake. London townsfolk move about like, well, townsfolk would at Christmas, 1843, while the Fezziwig festivities are comparable to those in which young Scrooge would have known, dancing and good cheer, not frenzied set-pieces. All conjoin to realistically portray the fantastic, as Scrooge navigates through the past to the probable to make a choice for his future. 

While past performances offered more entrenched Scrooges, misers coerced into their transmogrification via sometimes violent, more theatrically spectacular pyrotechnics, swooping descents from the Empyrean, heavier, higher-decibeled chains, here one’s heart opens to root for that lonely lad, thirsting for the grace that will allow him to bloom. 

Scrooge’s transformation by degrees, as he perforce revisits his sweet, fragile sister Fan, mother of nephew Fred whose Christmas invitation earlier that day Scrooge has dismissed with, “Bah, humbug!”, his early love for Belle, lost through his lust for money, offer a path for Scrooge to seek redemption, leaving less room for cynics to mutter, “Well, of coursefaced with that Future he’d shape up for the nominal price of a fat turkey and a few extra shillings to Cratchit!” Here, you do believe Scrooge wholeheartedly embraces his kin and will hereafter dote on Tiny Tim. 

Want and Ignorance remain abroad in the land, but force and threats will not erase them. Each individual must break free from their own inner want and ignorance before they can reach out an empathetic hand to others. The lure of the Cratchits’ family table, nephew Fred’s cheerful insistence on toasting his Uncle Scrooge, the Christmas celebration of the sailors at sea amidst the raging storm, must equal–nay, outweigh–the vision of Scrooge’s future, unvisited tomb for Carol’s finale to bring home its lesson. And they do. Triumphantly. 

At the Guthrie Theatre through December 31 

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