What if what is happening in a story actually happened to its creator? This idea sprang forth from the creative mind of Oak Parker Ned Crowley, first as a possible It’s a Wonderful Life spinoff, where director Frank Capra is going through his own depressive episode ala George Bailey as he makes the beloved 1946 holiday film.
But that idea morphed into A Dickens Carol, currently in its second season with Oak Park Festival Theatre. Crowley, its author, has lived in the village for approximately 15 years.
It opens with a grumpy and bitter Charles Dickens, who is cheating on his wife, rude to beggars, insensitive to his editor and not having much recent publishing success. It’s Christmas Eve, 1842, in London. After an accident, Dickens has an Ebenezer Scrooge-like experience — all before writing A Christmas Carol.
Many elements of the play are loosely based on Dickens’ life. One is a time shift — with a historic train crash setting off the sequence of emerging spirits and the scenarios they bring to light, reminiscent of the original holiday novella, personalized to Dickens himself.
While Crowley has gone to various holiday shows in the city with his family over the years, he found them to be predictable, or worse, “horrible.” He wanted to write an alternative.
When he attended a 2011 Oak Park Festival production, “Faith Healer,” Crowley saw Kevin Theis perform. The two had known each other more than 25 years prior from their theater and comedy days in Chicago. Seeing Theis gave Crowley an idea.
“I’m going to write this and maybe like the old days, we’ll find a way to put it up,” he said. Crowley “wrote it for Kevin,” envisioning Theis in the lead role of Charles Dickens. While Crowley originally imagined a one-man show, he realized more was needed to bring the story to life.
Theis, also an Oak Parker for 15 years, and an Oak Park Festival artistic associate, met Crowley to discuss the show. After sharing the information with Festival’s managing director, Jhenai Mootz, she suggested producing it through Oak Park Festival Theatre.
Crowley is not a playwright by trade. He is in advertising – currently the US Chief Creative Officer at mcgarrybower and formerly at Leo Burnett, working on accounts such as Disney for 18 years, Kraft, Kool-Aid and most recently, American Express.
During his many flights to the coasts, he writes. He has logged 300,000 air miles this year. Crowley has written movie scripts, two of which were produced: Parting Words and Middle Man. A dark comedy, Middle Man paired him with Parks and Recreation actor Jim O’Heir, whom Crowley befriended during his comedy days. Crowley also directed the film.
A Dickens Carol was written over six weeks in the early morning hours at the Buzz Café before Crowley went into work. Incidentally, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks also. Crowley wrote his play to be “clever, but reverent” having “spirit, not sarcasm.”
When it was first staged last December by Oak Park Festival Theatre, Theis directed and Crowley restrained himself — to a point. The playwright helped paint the set. He drove, purchased and installed a snow machine after the preview so it looked more like winter, much to the surprise of the actors. And he sat in on more than a dozen shows and took notes on what could be tweaked for 2018.
Crowley tightened the script over the summer and reworked the appearance of Dickens’ first visiting spirit, another famous literary figure, for this season’s performance.
The show has a cast of 13, many of whom play multiple characters, and there are special effects and changing sets. This year’s production is co-directed by Theis and Matt Gall.
Crowley says Theis is instrumental to the show. “I always needed a co-conspirator,” he said. “Part of this is the enjoyment of creating something with someone you know.”
See “A Dickens Carol,” Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 3 p.m., through Dec. 30, at Madison Street Theatre, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park. Recommended ages 10+. $35; $28, seniors; $15, students. Tickets: 708-300-9396, oakparkfestival.com.