'A Christmas Carol' hits the right notes

Oregon Stage Works' holiday gift to the Rogue Valley is a new presentation of the old standard, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Director Michael Meyer, writer Evalyn Hansen and Producing Director Peter Alzado went for the big production to glorious effect.

In her adaptation of the classic, Evalyn Hansen went back to the original story. She uses Dickens' language, cadence and imagery to its best advantage. Dickens himself toured giving readings of his tale, and Hansen's framework of narration works beautifully.

Hansen and director Michael Meyer have the luxury of a large cast to bring Dickens' world to life. There are two narrators, Barbara Rosen and Julie Excell, seated onstage, giving a straightforward but slightly wry take on the action to come. Pairs of actors introduce scene breaks with evocative description as they whisk props on and off the stage.

Although actual speaking roles are limited, virtual crowds of Victorian men, women and children criss-cross the stage giving the production the feel of crowded London. A fanciful street scene mural by Charles Couraud at the back of the stage completes the transformation.

But the center of the action in "A Christmas Carol" is Ebenezer Scrooge (Don Dolan). We meet the cynical, unsympathetic, ungenerous Scrooge as he belittles the holiday sentiments of his nephew Fred (Brandon Manley) and takes comfort in one more day of profitable mercantile. Scrooge even begrudges giving Christmas Day off to his slaving clerk Bob Cratchet (A.J. Falk).

Dickens' tale, of course, is a lesson in living a Christian life without religion ever being mentioned. There is no reference to church services, manger scenes or the birth of a Messiah. Scrooge's epiphany is not about punishment in the life hereafter, notwithstanding Marley's unhappy ghost, but rather what lies in store for him in the life of here and now.

As Scrooge tucks himself in on Christmas Eve, his solitude is abruptly disrupted by the appearance of his business partner, Jacob Marley (an impressively wan Paul R. Jones), dead these seven years. Dragging chains made of lock boxes, keys and ledgers, Marley warns Scrooge that those who fail to learn life's lessons while living are doomed to endlessly wander after death. Marley is giving Scrooge one last chance. Scrooge will be visited by three apparitions this very night.

And so we have the Ghost of Christmas Past (Dara Goldman), the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future (both played by Barbara Reins).

Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood village. We learn of a harsh father, a barebones existence made bearable by the companionship of a loving sister. We see the young Scrooge apprenticed out to a generous merchant, still enjoying life even as he becomes more obsessed with making money. It is perhaps the loss of his first love, who breaks off their engagement because she does not like the man Scrooge is becoming, that finally tips the scale.

Scrooge has cut off emotion and empathy because it is simply too painful.

Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a visit to Bob Cratchet's home, filled with children, and filled with love even as the family makes do with very little. We also meet Cratchet's youngest child, the crippled and valiant Tiny Tim (John Drevets).

Scrooge is moved by all this, in spite of himself.

Christmas Present then takes him to the home of his nephew Fred. Despised and belittled by his uncle, Fred still toasts him, still wants him to come to dinner. Again, Scrooge is moved.

Scrooge's last adventure, of course, is with the Ghost of Christmas Future. An ailing Scrooge is abandoned to die alone. His lodgings are pillaged of everything — bed curtains, linens, even the nightshirt off the body. No one shows up at his funeral. All his business acumen, all his money have bought him nothing. He certainly can't take it with him beyond the grave and his memory is a joke.

So when the night has ended and Scrooge wakes up in his own bed, still very much alive, we appreciate what has happened. The lessons are learned, the life amended. Dolan is absolutely radiant in his wondrous, generous, life-loving transformation. And we, the audience, enjoy it with him.

Intricate production values, large cast, familiar material — "A Christmas Carol" is a very ambitious project for OSW. It is to everyone's credit that this production is such a delight. It is fun for the whole family.

"A Christmas Carol" plays through Dec. 30. For more information, call 482-2334 or go to oregonstageworks.org

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