ORLANDO — Watching the production of ”Dickens By Candlelight”, I was struck midway through by a couple of thoughts, one having to do with the nature of Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” and why it continues to move us generation after generation, and then about the very intimate nature of theater itself.
Dickens’ story is an interesting contrast with another Christmas perennial, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and it’s a rather delightful coincidence that both are now playing at the Lowndes Shakespeare Theater in Orlando.
“Dickens by Candlelight,” the play by Robin Olson, has been performed in the Orlando area for the past 17 years, and now has a home in the Shakespeare Theater’s Patron’s Room. The theater is also continuing to show “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” through Dec. 29.
Both the Dickens story and the play originally based on the 1946 Frank Capra movie with Jimmy Stewart have those wonderfully upbeat, uplifting and emotionally stirring endings (if you haven’t read Dickens’ novella or seen the movie, stop reading this review right about here).
But there’s a unique difference. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the central character, George Bailey, is an instantly likable hero. It’s only when he falls on very tough times and comes to think his life has been a failure – and that he might as well just commit suicide on Christmas Eve – that we get wrapped up in the movie’s gripping drama. It’s certainly not because we can’t decide if we like George or not.
If we’re on George’s side from the start, “A Christmas Carol” has a totally different approach. In Ebenezer Scrooge, we have the ultimate in misers – the guy who grumbles “Bah! Humbug” at the idea of celebrating Christmas or giving his clerk Bob Cratchit the day off, who scoffs at the idea of contributing to charity when his tax dollars pay for institutions that are supposed to deal with that social issue. There are going to be some who find Scrooge the ultimate sourpuss, while others seem likely to cheer him on as the only realist in the book.
How stringently you disagree with Scrooge’s outlook may contribute to how much you enjoy this enduring tale of redemption. While George Bailey ponders jumping off a bridge into an icy river on Christmas Eve and is visited by his guardian angel Clarence, Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley, who warns him that he will be getting a visit from three ghosts who will take him on an emotional journey into his past, present – and potential future. It’s only when he wakes up on Christmas day to discover that he is still alive, does Scrooge realize how much joy there is in life.
In Olson’s 90-minute version, three actors carry us through the entire story, with the director John DiDonna playing Scrooge, and Olson and Monica Long Tamborello playing all the supporting roles. DiDonna is absolutely wonderful as Scrooge – he doesn’t overplay the miser early on, when he sits in his office on Christmas Eve, dismissing all this sentimental holiday nonsense as complete rubbish. The fact that he makes Scrooge seem all the more human makes the final redemption that much more emotionally fulfilling.
Olson, with her booming voice, and Tamborello both do a superb job in all their roles, and work quite effectively in a room filled with tables for the audience, complete with tea and cookies. There are no sets, and a good deal of the story is indeed told in the dark, by candlelight. For what is essentially a ghost story, that’s quite fitting, particularly in all those scenes set in Scrooge’s bedroom as the spirits eerily invade it.
But the three actors in that darkened room also remind us of how powerfully intimate theater is, as opposed to cinema. In theater, there is a connection between the performers — and the audience’s imaginations. The actors ask you to transport yourself into Scrooge’s bedroom, and they are so good that you willing work with them, conjuring up his cold bed and the other places the spirits take Scrooge to. When you have a strong story to begin with, and three powerful actors who know how to put a gripping emotion into their work, the effect is absolutely spellbinding.
Both “Dickens by Candlelight” and ”It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” are perfectly irresistible family fare for the holiday season, a joy for anyone who loves live theater.
They are also reminders, in very different ways, of what it is about this season that plays so toweringly on our emotions. Do we identify more with good guy George Bailey, who may have a mistaken impression of what constitutes success in life, or with Scrooge, the practical man who looks after himself because he doubts anyone else will …. only to learn that to do onto others is a most rewarding experience indeed.
“Dickens By Candlelight” plays tonight through Monday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m., with additional shows on Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35.
The Lowndes Shakespeare Theater is at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. For tickets, call 407-222-7669.
Contact Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..