Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the American Shakespeare Center (Staunton, VA)

We all have our own holiday traditions – lighting candles one night after the next, caroling, choral concerts, dreidel-spinning, Christmas Revels, Christmas-day Chinese fare, etc.—and they all bring their own kind of joy to the season.

Constance Swain (Tiny Tim) and Patrick Earl (Ebenezer Scrooge) in American Shakespeare Company's 2018 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Lauren Parker.
Constance Swain (Tiny Tim) and Patrick Earl (Ebenezer Scrooge) in American Shakespeare Company’s 2018 production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by Lauren Parker.

But you really must make room for another tradition, just a few hours from Washington—the American Shakespeare Center’s annual Holiday Season, in Staunton, Virginia, which couples their inimitable version of A Christmas Carol with more contemporary fare.

Yeah, that one. Bah humbug, Tiny Tim, God-bless-us-every-one, yada-yada. I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would I want to see another one of those?

Well, you cynics can just can it. This one rocks.

Most productions of Dickens’ holiday classic plunge you literally into darkness, and you have to endure the same darned story told in the same darned way, year after year. At the American Shakespeare Center stage, however, the festive atmosphere begins from the moment you enter the theatre, to be serenaded by the troupe (in costume) who form an impromptu busker’s band, singing holiday and somewhat-related popular songs (hip-hop included) all done with a combination of reverence and high irreverence.

The second thrill is that the lights stay up for the whole show, and if you’re lucky and you get to sit on the stage itself, you get to be a part of the proceedings. On the night I was there, when Scrooge (the tall, hilariously stuffy Patrick Earl) made his gruff entrance, he promptly stuffed his stovepipe hat over the head of one young boy and chucked his coat over his sister in the next seat (trust me, they were delighted). No two nights, no two shows are the same, and wherever you sit you are not just watching A Christmas Carol, you are an eyewitness drawn into the action.

This year, the company has dipped into the archives and discovered the promptbook from Dickens’ own touring days, when he would recite the story himself. ASC’s James McClure, the company’s Associate Artistic Producer, has brought us closer to Dickens’ vision for the tale than we have seen in many a year. And with Stephanie Holladay Earl’s intricately-woven choreography and direction, this new production soars in ways I never thought possible. It even brings a tear to your eye; not the forced, on-cue sort of thing either, but what comes from that rare feeling of empathy that live theatre can always deliver if you let it work its magic.

Topher Embrey (Christmas Present) in American Shakespeare Company's 2018 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Lauren Parker.
Topher Embrey (Christmas Present) in American Shakespeare Company’s 2018 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Lauren Parker.

Patrick Earl’s Scrooge is solid and formidable – when he needs to be early on – but he also does a good job melting away that hardness as the story unfolds. Constance Swain, meanwhile, is a pure joy to watch as Tiny Tim, with all the exuberance and optimism that melts hearts in an instant. And when it comes to show-stoppers you can’t beat Topher Embrey’s turn as Christmas Present, decked out by Jenny McNee’s brilliant floor-length, fur-lined robe (whose swirling quality Embrey positively exults in showing off).

The supporting cast, too numerous to go into detail here, are all given their moments to shine, and with Director Stephanie Earl’s decision to distribute the narration liberally among them, the result is a briskly-paced story that sweeps you up off the ground, only touching down as needed.

Anchoring the cast is Josh Clark’s turn as Bob Cratchit. His talent at physical comedy (also on display in the company’s touring show coming to McLean, Virginia this spring) is a joy to watch, but he also draws you in for the mourning scene. As I mentioned, it’s normal for audiences to feel compelled, on cue, to feel sad at Tiny Tim’s (possible) passing. But Clark manages to draw you into the Cratchits’ family home, and move the entire audience with grief, simply and humanely expressed. In my experience, it’s rare for Dickens to move you this way, as the sheer repetition makes a moment like this almost impossible to pull off. But Clark and the cast manage it gracefully.

Every December, the American Shakespeare Center balances this old chestnut with a more contemporary, satirical take on the season; so remember that if you come to Staunton for the Dickens, plan to stay for its modern sibling.

A trip to Staunton, Virginia during the holiday season is always a treat – it has developed a unique foodie scene, with a variety of offerings from brewpubs to pho to handmade ice creams (in truly exotic flavors). My family has developed its own list of favorites, and it’s such a treat I invite you to discover yours.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.

A Christmas Carol played from December 5-29, 2018, at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For more information about the ASC’s Staunton season, and for tickets to upcoming shows, go online.

Ronald Roman-Melendez, Fred/Young Scrooge; Annabelle Rollison, Mrs. Fezziwig/Martha Cratchit; Kenn Hopkins Jr., Fezziwig/Little Cratchit; Andrew Tung, Beggar Boy/Dick Wilkins/Peter Cratchit; Rick Blunt, Jacob Marley/Little Cratchit; Hilary Caldwell, Christmas Past/Mrs. Fred/Charwoman; Ally Farzetta, Child Scrooge/Mrs. Cratchit; Madeline Calais, Fan/Belinda Cratchit.

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