A joyful miser: ‘Christmas Carol’ at Portland Playhouse

For the fourth year, the Playhouse's touching version of the Dickens classic lights up the stage

A recent article surfaced from the think tank the Acton Institute, supported by the next secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, which wants us to “rethink our position on child labor.” When Charles Dickens penned the novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, he had in mind the women and children he termed “victims of the Industrial Revolution”: the poor London souls who toiled to early deaths under the smokestacks of early factories. For all the Scrooges out there who’ve grown tired of the Currier and Ives Victorian death grip on the holiday aesthetic, this seasonal reminder of Christmases past, present, and yet to come may be the snake oil your hot cider needs.

At Portland Playhouse, which has opened the fourth annual production of its multiple award-winning version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge – a delicious Dickens name and noun, somewhere between screw and gouge – is immediately distinguishable from the rest of the characters onstage. Jen Rowe’s Scrooge wears a perma-scowl, and loafs with a purposed business shuffle. She wears a black dovetail suit, her hair is pulled back with pincher precision, and her complexion is near ash. Scrooge the misanthrope, horrible old miser, pales in the sights of the rosy-cheeked and ornately clothed villagers. Rowe’s diction is on point, like a rusty typewriter key punching paper. She takes little to no time looking up from her counting ledger, except to raise an eyebrow in disapproval or her can’t-be-bothered voice.

A light in the darkness: Portland Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol." Photo: Brud Giles

A light in the darkness: The Playhouse’s “Christmas Carol.” Photo: Brud Giles

The outside of the old church where Portland Playhouse makes its home looks more like late autumn. The neighborhood is filled with a few Christmas baubles in the yards, but mostly decorated with protest signs. Once you’re in the door of the theater, the angry aura of the president-elect is swept away in a candlelit hue. Cockney accents of passersby welcome you, and the warm voices of what seems a spontaneous choir reach your ears. The scene for Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol is an immersive dunk into a world long gone by.

Brian Weaver’s thoughtful directorial touches  make a heavy, but natural, mark. Actors rush from acts, to making acoustic sound effects, through carefully choreographed prop-mastering, and on to pulling the smoke and mirrors past our eyes. Our disbelief is still suspended. The magic ticks in A Christmas Carol recall the kind of spell a Passion play would have held over a medieval audience. The parallels between Dante’s Divine Comedy and A Christmas Carol shine through: spirits guiding the living through circles of experience, and the ultimate redemption or change of a man stuck in a life rut. This production takes delight in the simple, yet well made.

Todd Van Voris’s formidable acting and singing skills round out the cast and give the Christmas village an added authenticity. His heavy, loaded Jacob Marley is a dire psychic specter of a lost soul. His pensive warnings echo through the theater like the crescendo of thunder in a storm. The spectrum-less white light striking off his eternal chains is less the heavy load of regret and more the sorrow of a life wasted.

The Ghost of Christmas Present’s mirth comes by way of Brazil, with a high-hat cornucopia that Carmen Miranda would be jealous of. A magnetic benevolence and almost fluorescent robes make Charles Grant’s spirit pop off the stage with an electric shock. As the clock hands reach their day’s end and the present begins to feel his death, a sweet, sad wisdom departs with his character.

Bob Cratchit, played by Rachel Lewis, is a scrappy do-gooder with a glow about her cheeks. Her Cratchit has such a light-hearted and generous soul that at the end of the play, the thank-God moment when Scrooge releases Cratchit from starvation wages hardly makes a mark. Lewis’s Cratchit has always had everything he really needed: love and family.

Eric Little, who plays Topper, Molly, and Dick, also strikes up most of the band. He casually picks up an accordion, and the cast and crew break out a carol. Little adds piano and guitar for other numbers. Rick Lombardo and Anna Lackaff’s adaptation of Dickens’s classic creates an unbroken circle between the carols and the script. With shredded snowflakes drifting from the high ceiling ropes and pulleys, and the small choir singing in harmonies, the intimate space is transformed into a living snow globe.

Christmas is about the future, and the children in Portland Playhouse’s production round out all the complicated adult messages of Dickens’s intent. When little Serelle Strickland makes Tiny Tim’s well-known joyous declaration, “God bless us, everyone,” it isn’t easy to hold back the waterworks.

In its fourth year, this tradition for Portland Playhouse comes off as second nature: all the hard behind-the-scenes work appears effortless. A Christmas Carol has seen many incarnations, often with edges that are too polished and Baroque. Portland Playhouse is careful with this play, and gets straight to the message.

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Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol continues through December 30. Ticket and schedule information here.

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