There’s something magical about good, fake snow. And The Keegan Theatre’s An Irish Carol has it, falling outside the window of their spot-on-pub set and making you feel like settling into a comfortable old robe in front of a fire. But like that old robe, Carol is a little threadbare – more nostalgia than substance.
The play, by company member Matthew J. Keenan, is a fond love letter to Dickens’ original. Crotchety pub owner David (Kevin Adams) is doing his best to share his seasonal depression with the rest of the characters, including good-hearted Polish bartender Bartek (Josh Sticklin), regulars Frank and Jim (Timothy H. Lynch and David Jourdan), and well, pretty much everyone else who walks through the door. The general arc is no surprise – David comes around in time to spread the holiday spirit – but the story is clear of ghosts and visions.
Instead, Carol replaces the visitations with figures from David’s past, each presenting themselves rather than introduced by a ghostly MC. Brother Michael (Mike Kozemchak) stops by to make one last impassioned plea for David to come see the family for dinner. Old employee Simon (Jon Townson) swings by with his fiance Anna (Susan Marie Rhea) in an attempt to free David from the pub. And old friend and romantic rival Richard (Mick Tinder) delivers a letter from Bernie, the recently passed-away love of both their lives. By the end, David seems ready to turn a new leaf.
There’s a lot to like about the production. The set, also designed by Keenan, is as realistic a pub as you’re likely to see on stage. There’s almost no surprise when it turns out that the taps are working. And Director Mark A. Rhea has built some amazing connections between his cast members, giving us an ensemble that really seems to share a history. Lynch and Jourdan put in particularly good turns as the sorts of old men that haunt empty Dublin pubs on Christmas Eve. Frank is lascivious and delightfully arch, while Jim’s warmth gives the play its emotional center. And as the put-upon Bartek, Josh Sticklin frequently steals the show.
But – and there’s a lot of “but” – there are problems. And one of those is that Kevin Adams might have succeeded too well in making David (to paraphrase the text) kind of a “miserable old sod.” Aside from Jim’s obvious fondness for the man, David doesn’t seem to have redeeming characteristics and I didn’t want him to turn things around. There’s no hint of Scrooge’s over-the-top miserliness, just sheer bad attitude. And that attitude doesn’t change after visits from Simon or Michael, or even after seeing his old pal Richard. Bernie’s letter is the only thing that shakes him out of his bad mood, making the change incredibly sudden. The new-and-improved David is likeable enough that it seems he retroactively earned his redemption, but it’s still an awkward shift.
The other problem with the play is that the majority of the story takes place through exposition. Frank and Jim spend their time recalling past events and filling in the newly-hired Bartek, a stiff work-around for the loss of Scrooge’s visions. There’s a reason that “show, don’t tell” is one of the cardinal rules of writing. It helps that the trio are delightful to watch – there’s a real worry that each time one of them leaves the stage, the production is taking a loss it won’t recover from – but you find yourself hoping they’ll stop with the story and get back to the pub banter. Since the events all happened in the past and nothing has changed, all the exposition does is bring you up to speed on where David was at curtain up. The letter is the only thing that matters, and it takes a while to get there.
An Irish Carol isn’t going to be replacing the original in the canon anytime soon. But like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the Keegan’s version gets by on spirit and sentimentality. It’s a nice little reprieve from the winter grey, a “bah humbug” with a wink and a smile.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
An Irish Carol review in 2012 by Jessica Vaughan.