I was feeling like a bit of a Scrooge myself as I headed over to see Oak Park Festival Theatre's world premiere production of A Dickens Carol by Ned Crowley. My Thanksgiving dinner was not even fully digested, and now I had to shift gears into the total Yuletide mode. I feared I might not be able to make this sudden transition from pilgrims and turkeys to Victorian Christmas.
But I'm thrilled to report this production, seamlessly directed by Kevin Theis, who also plays the lead, is full of warmth, thrills and fun. I really enjoyed it — the whole nine yards of beautiful costumes, picturesque set, wonderful lighting, solid writing, and fine acting. The play presents many lovely moments that are like old-time illustrations lifted from antique holiday cards. The show is poignant and often laugh-out-loud funny, but at times dark and ominous, too. It's great!
In their promotional material, Oak Park Festival Theater includes the caption: "A Mostly True Christmas Story." Everything seems to be fairly accurate except some slight rearrangement. A pivotal and potentially disastrous locomotive derailment is moved to an earlier point in the author's life rather than his middle 50s. The show is set in 1842 when Charles Dickens (1812-1870), perhaps the greatest novelist of the Victorian Age, was experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis. He is bitter and restless, experiences conflict with his lovely wife Catherine (Jhenai Mootz), has had a series of literary flops, perhaps struggles with writer's block, and seems to be depressed about having to constantly keep writing popular books. His career is on the wane, he's told. After Dickens and his pregnant wife separate, he is aboard the Staplehurst train when suddenly many of the railroad cars plunge over the edge of a bridge.
Dickens is buried in the wreckage and, while unconscious though not badly injured, he experiences a rejuvenating dream in which a series of ghosts take him on a wild ride through his past, the present and what his life will be like if he stays on the same cranky, irritable path.
When he comes to, the novelist is inspired to write about Scrooge and his Christmas Eve adventures with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. From this potentially disastrous night we see Dickens experience a change of heart that leads to writing his celebrated holiday novella, which continues to delight.
With their talent and enthusiasm, the entire cast immediately brings this production to life. Theis is dynamic and sympathetic. Even when he seems at a low point, being crabby and argumentative, we feel sympathetic to the pressures he endures.
Among the many delightful scenes is one featuring 19th century dancing from Dickens' past. Clayton Cross is the choreographer.
We hear a lot of dark detail from Dickens' past, such as when his parents served time in debtors' prison. Dickens' hard-working editor (Matt Gall), who resembles Bob Cratchit (father of Tiny Tim), struggles with poverty and has a disabled little daughter (Delilah Lane).
Many of the ensemble members play multiple roles. They are all outstanding. But one of the best is Margaret Garofalo who often has to shift gears within mere seconds and become a totally different individual. Frederick Harris is a hilarious railway conductor who later doubles as one of the more frightening spirits.
Mark Lancaster is impressive as the towering Ghost of Christmas Present, who carries a tall staff that twinkles magically. The Ghost of Shakespeare is well played by Robert Koon.
Other cast members who create solid characters are Erica Bittner, Evan Coles, Laura Resignor, Matty Robinson, and Gwendolyn Theis.
The two-level set, designed by Ira Amya and Merje Veski, is an amazing recreation of a Victorian street corner. The stunning lighting by Kevin T. Gawley always heightens the mood. The fine mid-19th century costumes are by Rachel Sypniewski.
The stage manager is Leigh Anne Barrett. Technical director is Brian Sprague. The train wreck, which features a large railroad coach, is especially impressive. And in the last moments of the show, it is snowing. It's all quite impressive.
See "A Dickens Carol" Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m., through Dec. 24. Ages 10+. $30; $25, seniors; $15, students. Tickets/more: 708-445-4440, oakparkfestival.com. Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park.
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