Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago

REAPPRAISING A CASH COW

Consider this a kind of conditional mea culpa: In past reviews of Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, I’ve faulted the production’s trivialization of Charles Dickens’ 1847 ghost story, a tale intended to scare Victorian readers into avoiding the ugly life and dire fate of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Rather than deal with a contemptible, money-lending miser who, as one character says has “frightened us for years” — a lost soul who could easily be any of us — many in Goodman’s audiences tittered, giggled, and indulged in condescending chuckles over this lovable old geezer who they just knew was going to be saved by play’s end, thanks to the predictable intervention of four ghosts (including Jacob Marley).

Larry Yando’s affable and accessible Scrooge seemed to encourage the pandering, winking, twinkling and indicating that he was just going through the motions of being a mean old skinflint and Yuletide party pooper. You just knew he’d pull out of his spiral of depression and learn how to spend his fortune.

The problem wasn’t Tom Creamer’s sturdy script, which remains doggedly faithful to the pain of poverty and to Dickens’ denunciation of the false pride of “fellow passengers to the grave.” Interestingly, exposed to the story for the first time when they read or see it, children get it right away. They sense instinctively that Scrooge is the bogeyman under the bed — provided they ignore the adults around them who chortle at this Christmas pantomime rather than take its message as it’s meant. Because they’re not altogether sure that Scrooge wants to be saved, children don’t laugh (well, except during the Fezziwigs’ festivities) until a post-evil Ebenezer finally can. Otherwise the joke is on us.

Rather than play the curmudgeon defending Dickens against this unthreatening, watered-down repudiation of a crusading, cautionary tale (colorblind and gender-bending casting would not fix the flippancy), I skipped seeing it for two years.

Returning this week for Yando’s 12th appearance as Scrooge in this 42nd production, it finally hit me: The real problem is the audience. More specifically, many in the assembled audience  — slap-happy, laugh-loving patrons — seemingly want to protect Dickens from being Dickens.

Because from the opening narrative — which warns that Scrooge’s misanthropy is not unique — to Scrooge’s inability to smile or laugh until he returns to humanity, Henry Wishcamper’s staging is now dark enough to make the miracles — time travel, levitation, invisibility — matter. It lays out its truths to those who listen and do not laugh.

Maybe it’s a sad sign of our times but there are folks eager to love this classic to death. They want the pretty Currier & Ives settings and the Pickwickian raillery in the party scenes. But they hate and mock the melodrama that’s built into the work’s warnings, most notably Marley’s tough-loving scare tactics as he tries to stop Scrooge from wearing a similar chain of guilt. For them this supposed sermonizing is as “flowery” as Scrooge initially dismisses it.

They’re every bit as wrong as they’re well-intentioned.

At its unashamed heart, A Christmas Carol remains universal, an object lesson for us all, not just a cartoon of a “comical old man” blind to compassion as we righteous onlookers could never be. Scrooge is us! (Mea culpa.)

photos by Liz Lauren

A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on December 29, 2019
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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