Ebenezer Scrooge is as iconic a Christmas character as Santa Claus. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in this day and age that doesn’t at least know the basics of the story of “A Christmas Carol.” In the pantheon of personalities that populate the season, Scrooge is as indispensable as eggnog with nutmeg.
While other holiday characters are warm and cuddly, however, Scrooge is, quite frankly, a big jerk. He grumbles and growls, withholds his great wealth from those who need it most, and bemoans giving his employee Bob Cratchit Christmas day off (with pay!). “Carol” isn’t about negativity and the misanthropy, though. It’s about redemption, and how the good (or bad) you do will eventually come back to you. Sometimes it takes a handful of supernatural visitors and a fateful Christmas Eve to do it; sometimes it’s as simple as doing something nice for someone.
The Penobscot Theatre Company, in its production of the Charles Dickens classic, set to begin on Thursday, Dec. 10, spins the heartwarming tale in traditional fashion, with Jacob Marley in chains, Tiny Tim on crutches, and Scrooge Bah Humbugging away.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, venerable local actor Ken Stack will not be portraying Ebenezer Scrooge. In 2009, Joseph W. Lane, a Washington, D.C. actor last seen in PTC’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy” in 2007, will don the white nightshirt and cynical outlook on life.
In that show, he was the man, Hoke, who drove around Miss Daisy. This time, he’s the man, Scrooge, who makes everyone miserable until some ghosts knock some sense into him. Until he arrived in Bangor a few weeks ago, Lane didn’t know who Ken Stack was.
“I didn’t know going into it that that was the case. Scott [Levy] informed me once I got here that Ken had been doing it all this time,” Lane said. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh man, I’m going up against a Bangor legend.’ But I know all I can do is be true to the character, and bring what I have to it. I’m sure there will be comparisons. But that’s OK.”
Producing artistic director Scott RC Levy, who directed this production, chose Lane for one big reason: he’s an excellent actor.
“The first thing is that he’s a fabulous actor. We worked so well with him on ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’” Levy said. “I also knew that I did not want to cast a local actor in Ken’s part. Joe wanted to come back to Bangor, and I had been looking for a good project for him, so it all worked out perfectly.”
This year’s “Carol” is the first PTC production of the Dickens classic since 2006, when Levy made the decision to take a break from it. In between then and now, the company offered up shows such as “Peter Pan” in 2007, “A Year With Frog and Toad,” the children’s musical produced in 2008, and “A Tuna Christmas,” also in 2008.
“I think, quite frankly, people got tired of it,” said Levy. “The audience for it had declined by a third, between 2001 and 2006. It was time for a break. The intention was never to stop doing it, though. I think each year we’ll alternate ‘Carol’ with other holiday fare. There’s lot of stuff out there.”
In 2005 and 2006, Levy chose “Carol” adaptations that disembarked from traditional versions: 2005’s show featured the Beatles as a kind of Greek chorus for the action, while the 2006 production had a play-within-a-play setting. It’s been five years since PTC has staged a traditional “Christmas Carol.”
“This is the most traditional one we’ve ever done,” said Levy. “It’s a new adaptation by Jacqueline Goldfinger, who had a play featured in our Northern Writes Short Play Festival. It’s a very fast version, because to me, ‘A Christmas Carol’ needs to be for the kids, and kids will enjoy an hour and a half more than two and a half hours.”
In that hour and a half, however, audiences will get the full-on “Christmas Carol” experience. The ghosts of past, present and future, portrayed, respectively, by Lillian Costello, Arthur Morison and Ben Laymen, remain true to form, as do the optimistic, loving Cratchit family, led by Allen Adams as Bob and Abby Hayward as Mrs. Cratchit. Though the setting in which the story is told can vary wildly, the message stays the same.
“The arc of the character of Scrooge is something you have to be very careful about,” Lane said. “He starts off in such a dark, cold place, impervious to a lot of the things most people cherish, about the holidays and family and society and being a human being. He’s cold cash, and gain is his mistress. It takes him a really long time to shake free of that. You can’t let his evilness dissipate too early on in the play. That’s what makes his revelation so joyful.”
Penobscot Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol” runs Dec. 10-23 at the Bangor Opera House. For a full schedule, visit www.penobscottheatre.org, or call 942-3333.
Along with “A Christmas Carol,” Penobscot Theatre Company will present David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” beginning Tuesday, Dec. 15, and running through Sunday, Dec. 27. On its way to becoming a new holiday classic, Sedaris’ true story of his experience as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s Department Store in New York City is a hilarious, one-man riff on the perils of the holiday season. In the role of Crumpet, Sedaris’ elfin pseudonym, this year is Dominick Varney, most recently seen as Sparky in PTC’s smash hit production of “Forever Plaid.” The show is a blisteringly funny bah humbug to the season — if you’re sick of endless loops of carols and sparkly Christmas sweaters, this is the show for you. If you’re perfectly content to enjoy all those things and more — or if you’re a youngun’ with sensitive ears — check out “A Christmas Carol” instead. Either way, the PTC has lots of holiday fun in store for the next few weeks.