PORTLAND, Maine — Bah humbug! The familiar rebuke of Christmas rings through Portland Stage Company. Dressed in a white nightgown and winter’s cap, Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Ron Botting, takes a break from rehearsals this week to muse on what the miser, one of Charles Dickens most lasting characters, can teach us 171 years after the classic “A Christmas Carol” was born.
“It’s really a ghost story,” said executive and artistic director Anita Stewart, who directs the show, which runs Nov. 28 through Dec. 24, for her 16th season. “Its message is timeless.”
The pair, who are married, joined the BDN for a discussion of what the lead figure in “A Christmas Carol” can teach us about Christmas and life in America today.
What is it like playing the classic role of Scrooge on stage?
Botting: It empowers you. You believe in the story like you believe in Shakespeare. You’ve got a good text to play with. So don’t worry about the outcome — just tell the story as best you can and have faith that the audience is going to hear the story. They know the story, so now can we make it a surprise again for you? It’s a beautiful experience for an actor.
Stewart: It’s a more real character for me this year. In the climate where we are in our country, where there is the left and the right and no one is talking to each other, it’s really interesting to see someone embody what you think is one end of the spectrum. It isn’t as black and white as we want to make it out to be. If we can really get inside and see who that person is, it makes a tremendous difference.
Botting: That’s because we can go to his past.
What can we learn from Scrooge’s journey into the past?
Botting:The message is, [he says in Scrooge’s voice] ‘How will I live my life?’ After he’s seen the past the present and the possible future, he says ‘Show me that I may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life. I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees.’
Does one have to have a spirit intervention to change?
Botting: Scrooge is tortured because he can’t change the past. He is only visiting as a ghost, so he can’t participate … There are all sorts of empty, haunting, beautiful things that happen to him. He’s shown Fezziwig, he says: ‘It’s old Fezziwig, bless his heart.’ He made me happy in my life. There is a huge range of things he is allowed to see again. That’s a huge gift. That’s what awakens his heart again, at one time he was really alive.
The story was written long ago, yet it resonates right now. How does this tale stay relevant?
Stewart: What makes it a piece people go back to over and over again is that it really deals with what is important in society. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to take care of yourself and others? How do we do that and what’s important to us? Scrooge starts to understand these people as somebody that he can connect with.
That’s something that’s missing from our society right now. It’s easy to put a label on someone but not recognize that they are having the same Christmas celebrations as you are, they love people, they are dealing with poverty or sickness or the loss of a loved one.
Botting: Scrooge lost a loved one, and Cratchit is losing his son.
Stewart: Part of what theater does is bring people together. It’s live actors who are up there doing the work. It’s a human being in front of you, and they are responding to how you are saying the text. It’s a human experience. That intimacy is exactly what our society is missing now.
Why, out of all the Christmas stories, is Dickens’ work still so emotionally valid?
Stewart: Dickens was writing from the heart. As a young child, his father had to go to debtors prison. That had a tremendous impact on him. When we are asking welfare mothers to go to work, when you tell stories that are individual, that’s where it touches a chord with people. That is what Charles Dickens did.
I wish all of these issues in this text were resolved today; it seems that in this era where we have the 1 percent; where the rich seem to be getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, it’s actually coming back closer to Victorian England with the societal issues that we are dealing with.
Does working on this play change your thoughts about Christmas?
Botting: It’s the only charitable time of the year when we don’t treat each other like aliens. I know these guys [who hate Christmas like Scrooge]. They put up all these lights, but they don’t believe in Christmas. As an actor I wonder ‘how do I reach everybody?’ I’m trying to keep it alive and real.
Stewart: At the end he says, ‘I’m quite a baby.’ It’s referring to the sense of how do we get back to that innocence? To that ability to see each other?
Botting: The answer is simple. Let’s just care for each other. Do what we can. People who have more should give a little more. I’m happy to do that know that I thought about my life, I got the warning, my friends talked to me. It’s not just being visited by spirits. It’s about you choosing to engage in the world properly with some compassion.
A Christmas Carol runs Nov. 28 through Dec. 24 at Portland Stage Company, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, tickets, $45, can be ordered online at www.portlandstage.org or by phone at 207-774-0465.