Come the holiday season around here, there may be snow or there may be Indian summer, but one thing that never changes for many families is the tradition of seeing Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol at Trinity Repertory Company (through December 31).
UPLIFTING Jack Feld, Wilson Jr., and Molly Schreiber.
Other regional theaters also milk that sentimental cash cow for all it's worth every year, but Trinity does it differently. Instead of a cookie-cutter version each time, reassuring fans that everything will be exactly the same, they challenge directors to make the show their own. Scrooge will be fine-tuned, perhaps to a slit-eyed curmudgeon, perhaps to a defiant libertarian. The typical emotional tone of the music may be sunny Christmas carols or the dark Dies Irae.
Thankfully, directors start with a solid footing. This version by Trinity founder Adrian Hall and composer Richard Cumming is engagingly told and theatrically skillful. local audiences seem to have agreed over the past 32 years, so much so that in the mid-'90s, the theater started adding performances with a second cast.
This year's director is Cape Town-raised Liesl Tommy, a Trinity Rep Conservatory alum who has appeared here in the holiday favorite, playing Belle and Lucy. Her background informs her take on the tale, both because of her familiarity with the story from the inside and because apartheid was virtually Dickensian in the extremity of its social injustice.
This time around, the director eases us into the tale, establishing the proper mood gently as we first hear a carefully slow "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a spotlight gradually dawning on the singer (Holly Cast: Rachael Warren; Ivy Cast: Angela Williams). The opening scene always grabs us at Trinity, because Ebenezer Scrooge is demonstrating his callousness, continuing to count money as his partner is dying next to him. Scrooge (Mauro Hantman; Joe Wilson Jr.) responds heartlessly to Jacob Marley (Russ Salmon; Jimmy King), as his boyhood friend and business partner clutches his chest and collapses. In a good touch, Tommy has Scrooge show distress from his own chest pains now and then, so when his dire prospects for an afterlife are later revealed, dying is more than theoretical to him.
There are more ghosts here than Dickens's customary trio. For example, a masked chorus of specters accompany Marley down to the glowing bowels of hell. Between these Christmas spirits rampant in the show and the happy Christmas spirit in the theater, we keep being reminded that more than entertainment is being offered here.
Trinity featured the Holly cast on opening night, so that's the performance I'll sample here. Hantman's Scrooge is a thoughtful character, frightened for a moment by Marley's heart attack before he recovers his disdain. At the conclusion, his Scrooge's redemption is a relatively calm and meditative process, as the older reprobate's understanding dawns and deepens. (Wilson's Scrooge, in contrast, is giddy with joy.) The anthem near the beginning and at the end is the spiritual "Peace In the Valley," which sings of the lion lying down with the lamb and being "changed from this creature I am" — a perfect description of a Ebenezer's internal reconciliation.