God bless us, once again

At a preshow reception introducing the Goodman’s new artistic director, Susan V. Booth, executive director Roche Schulfer talked about how the theater’s production of A Christmas Carol, which turns 45 this year, has grown from an annual tradition to something of a public trust and an institutional responsibility. And indeed, though it may be a cash cow (no shame in that—we need a whole herd of fiscal cattle to come through for live performance right now), the show continues to thread the needle between hewing to the original while providing just enough dashes of contemporary references to blow away the seasonal cobwebs. (This year, the show begins with a young woman, Rika Nishikawa, singing a Ukrainian carol while wearing a wreath of yellow and blue flowers in her hair.)

In that way, it mirrors the holiday experience for many families, which blend past and present. Children get older, move out, and perhaps have kids of their own that they bring to the gathering. People die, but their memories live on in the stories their surviving loved ones tell. (This year’s production is dedicated to William J. Norris, who first played Scrooge for the Goodman and died a year ago this week.) There is comforting sameness in traditions—as long as we don’t get lost in the mazes of memory, unable to find our way back to the needs of the here and now.

A Christmas Carol
Through 12/31: Wed-Thu 7 PM, Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 7 PM; also Tue 12/6 7 PM, Tue 12/20 2 and 7 PM, Thu 12/1 and Wed 12/7 11 AM, Wed 12/14 noon, Wed 12/21-12/28, Thu 12/15-12/22, and Fri 12/23-12/30 2 PM, Sat 12/24 and 12/31 2 PM only, no performances Fri 12/30 7:30 PM or Sat 12/25; audio description Sat 12/10 2 PM, ASL interpretation Fri 12/16 7:30 PM, open captions Sun 12/18 2 PM, Spanish subtitles Sun 12/18 7 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$159

Larry Yando, returning for his 15th season as Ebenezer Scrooge, also knows how to thread that needle. The production never hits harder than when we see the losses that shriveled his heart during his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past (played with ethereal charm by Lucky Stiff, who looks like a harlequin in costume designer Heidi Sue McMath’s shimmery, icy-blue ensemble, with a crescent moon on the cap serving as a subtle reminder of the waxing and waning of days). From the harshness of the boarding school where young Ebenezer (Jalen Smith) is held in by forbidding iron gates to the temporary reprieve with his beloved sister Fan (Ariana Burks), his earliest holiday memories seem to weave together harshness and light. Jessica Thebus’s staging incorporates a bit of the surreal in this segment, as we see a white stag—the traditional symbol of innocence, great change, and even Christ himself—walking just beyond those gates.

This year’s production also leans heavily on the talents of the women in the cast, suggesting how much Yando’s Scrooge has lost over the years by running away from the nurturing offered not just by Fan, but by his first boss, Mrs. Maud Fezziwig (played with infectious bonhomie by Cindy Gold) and his lost love, Belle (Amira Danan). The cross-gender casting continues with Frida (Dee Dee Batteast), Scrooge’s niece, who’s determined to keep the spirit of Christmas no matter how many “bah, humbugs” are tossed her way.

The splendid Bethany Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Present also nimbly walks the line between jolly and stern, her admonitions to Yando’s Scrooge taking on sharp urgency as her own time on Earth draws to a close. (In place of the usual gigantic pile of presents and a holiday repast, Scrooge’s gloomy room is transformed into a green and glorious bower of plants for Christmas Present’s arrival, and a sprig of evergreen remains behind to remind Scrooge of his spectral adventures once his transformation is complete.) Thomas J. Cox’s Bob Cratchit and his “good wife” (Susaan Jamshidi) embody the mundane, but miraculous, comforts of loving companionship in an otherwise harsh world. 

As usual, much of the comedy in Yando’s performance comes from Scrooge’s growing sense of vanity. He smooths his hair as he awaits the arrival of the first spirit (well, the first after Kareem Bandealy’s fearsome Marley, that is.) At one point, Yando’s miser is looking at himself in the mirror, his back turned to the audience, and begins twitching his posterior like Hugh Grant’s prime minister in Love Actually. It’s endearingly ridiculous, but also reinforces that loving others does indeed begin with loving oneself enough to believe you can actually make a difference in the world, no matter how small.

The appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Future (Daniel Jose Molina) is suitably grim. The spirit looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and a plague doctor with his beaky mask, and there’s a company of others wearing the same mask gathered wordlessly behind him, as if to remind us of those we’ve lost in the past few years. But despite the inevitable mournfulness evoked by that image, Tom Creamer’s adaptation remains a stouthearted study in the power of transformation. (Minor quibble: Andrew White is fine as the narrator, but I’ve never felt Creamer’s version has figured out exactly how much to bring the character into the story itself.)

It’s perhaps easy to view A Christmas Carol with seasonal cynicism, given how many versions compete for audience dollars this time of year. But after several seasons away from the Goodman’s production, it was good to be there opening night, remembering past productions, absent loved ones, and the importance of treasuring the ones who remain.