There’s a moment in the Goodman Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” when Ebenezer Scrooge’s lonely relative — here, his gender-swapped niece Frida (Dee Dee Batteast) — quotes Charles Dickens’s novella to extol the virtues of Christmas. “A gentle, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time in the long calendar of the year that I know when men and women, with one accord, begin to freely open their closed hearts and think of the people below,” as if they were truly companions to the grave, and not just another race of creatures on other journeys like.”
I don’t know if I agree with this rosy view; It’s hard to scan the news and think that December will bring a solution to the great suffering people inflict on each other. Perhaps even in Dickens’s time this statement was less a reflection of the author’s opinion than a request coming from the mouth of one of his most optimistic characters.
And yet, year after year, Goodman turns out a relentlessly wholesome and hopeful staging of this classic that makes you believe it’s true. This change is possible. This kindness can win.
Jessica Thebus returns for a third season to direct this seasonal production, adapted by Tom Creamer and now in its 46th year at the Goodman. In 2022, the staging of Thebus began with a young cast singing a Ukrainian song referencing the plight of a people at war. While new conflicts dominate the headlines, of course peace is yet to come to Ukraine and many parts of the world. Thus, the 2023 production begins with the ensemble singing the traditional song “Dona nobispacem”; Although this is inspired by Catholics, it is a more universal cry for peace.
Larry Yando’s performance in his 16th outing as Scrooge is far from stale, but Austin Tichenor will step into the role for eight shows this year. On opening night, Yando performed Scrooge’s “Cratch-IT!” he snickers at his beleaguered clerk, at his own malicious humor and pretentiousness as he waits for the first ghost. And his transformation from cold-hearted miser to ordinary philanthropist is still a sight to behold. Scrooges exclaims in disbelief, “I’m… happy!” When he said, the audience responded with a collective “no”.
Of course, before he can get to that comforting ending, Scrooge must visit the past, present, and future of Christmas, guided by three spirits (Lucky Stiff, Bethany Thomas, and Daniel José Molina, who also plays young Scrooge). Every time I watch this play, one of these scenes sticks out in my memory more than any other, and this year it will undoubtedly be the party held by Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (Robert Schleifer and Penelope Walker), Scrooge’s employers. as a young adult. Revelers sing in half a dozen or so languages, and the entire group joins Fezziwig in using American Sign Language. It’s a joyful, inclusive meeting that shows Scrooge just how much he’s missed by avoiding human sympathy in the intervening years.
Thebus balances such lighthearted scenes with truly terrifying moments. Even before the ghost of Jacob Marley (Kareem Bandealy) appears, Scrooge encounters the ghost of a hungry child (Viva Boresi) whom he chased from his doorstep earlier that night. This new horror element paves the way for an effective jump scare when Marley makes his entrance. The Ghost of Christmas Future, the other book in the paranormal visitors series, again wears the beaked mask of the medieval plague doctor, and this year the spirit spins the iron wheel of fate and is accompanied by two sinister crows (Amira Danan and Amir Henderson).
Fear gives way to pain when Scrooge witnesses the death of Tiny Tim (Christian Lucas) in a potential future. Thomas J. Cox gives an outstanding performance as Bob Cratchit, Tim’s father and Scrooge’s employee, timid and submissive in his abusive workplace, but warm and loving at home and heartbreaking in his grief. As Scrooge becomes concerned with the fate of the Cratchit family, he is tormented by the Ghost of Christmas Present’s own cruel words, hurled at him with righteous anger.
Just as Scrooge emerges from this dark night of the soul to a better, happier future, Goodman’s production takes the audience on a journey from fear and sadness to joy and hope. In what is a difficult season for many, “A Christmas Carol” calls us to open our hearts to our fellow travelers through this life. Let even the most cynical among us take notice.
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Give us peace.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “A Christmas Carol” (4 stars)
When: until December 31
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Working time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Tickets: $33-$159 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org