The tree is trimmed, the stockings hung, the holiday cards have been signed, sealed and dropped in the mailbox – but for me, none of it managed to jumpstart the old Christmas spirit like spending two hours in the dark with Paul Morella.
That’s because Morella’s performance of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” at the Olney Theatre taps deep into the well of the holiday and its meaning, using Dickens’ glittering prose and his own considerable charm to breathe life into an oft-told tale.
At the start of the show Morella, who presides over the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab taking tickets and chatting with theatergoers, asks the audience to see him not as an actor on a stage but as storyteller, a fellow guest at a dinner party, a raconteur of a ghost story the like of which they’ve never heard. And even though most people might figure they’ve heard (or read or seen) “A Christmas Carol” more times than they’d care to remember, this is the guy who has showed up prepared to make every word fresh and new.
My 11-year-old theater-loving son was incredulous when I told him beforehand that there would be no cast, no curtain, no musical numbers or special effects. Walking through the Olney Theatre campus pre-show he stole a glance in the direction of the Mainstage, where kids his age were engrossed in “Cinderella.” He paused at the Historic Theatre, where “The Nutcracker” promised an epic battle to defeat the Mouse King and his Army. But once inside the black-boxy lab, where the London fog was already curling around the simple set, he started reading Morella’s program notes, took to heart the invitation to take part and express emotion freely, and let himself get caught in the actor’s net and carried along for the ride.
And what a ride! This is Morella’s third season with the show, which he adapted straight from Dickens’ 1843 novella, so every word he speaks is one that dropped from the pen of the master. Not unlike Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the words weave a spell that is potent and compelling, drawing the listener with their sparkling perfection. It’s Morella, though, who manages to embody all of Dickens’ perfectly drawn characters from Jacob Marley to Old Fezziwig to Tiny Tim. He captures Mrs. Cratchit’s plum pudding pride and the endless affability of Fred Scrooge; he brings dark bedchambers and dreary city streets to life. Morella’s ghosts are scary, his ladies are gigglers, and his Scrooge has a humanity that keeps the audience on his side just a little even before his glorious transformation takes place.
Most people know the story of Scrooge, whether they’ve read the Dickens classic or not. But here it is delivered not as the tale of a miser-gone-good but as a hard-boiled human who has wasted his chances and sabotaged his happiness and gets a sudden, scary wake-up call. Morella makes Scrooge Everyman, and he renders Dickens relatable: a brilliant man who never forgot the lessons of poverty and despair, a guy who used his considerable gifts to make the world a better place for the ranks of impoverished children and their families because he knew exactly what it felt like to be hungry and hopeless and cold.
Morella says “A Christmas Carol” is at its heart a ghost story, and in a sense that’s true. But it’s also a story of redemption, of forgiveness, of gratitude and change. It’s about the way a little child can soften the hardest of hearts; the way a poor, humble family can possess vast treasure in the form of love and laughter. It’s about the fact that the best things in life aren’t things, and the way that people can change if the right spirit moves them. It’s a Christmas story, if you ask me. And I recommend that you add it to your holiday preparations this year.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and Performed by Paul Morella, for audiences 10 and up.
Runs through December 30, 2012: Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3pm; Wednesday matinees on December 19 and 26; Monday 3pm performance on December 24; Friday matinees December 21 and 28.
All Tickets are $26. Discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students.
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.
Box Office 301-324-3300