As a genial Ray Dooley stepped onstage last Thursday night, there were two distinct theatrical echoes in Kenan Theatre. The first was from 1998, the last time local audiences saw him in this one-person version of A Christmas Carol. The other was a century older.
Charles Dickens wasn't just a triumphant nineteenth-century novelist. He was also the biggest British popular entertainer to hit North America until The Beatles. Dickens's sold-out solo performances of his own works, including an abridged A Christmas Carol, wrapped ticket lines around blocks in New York and Boston. He presented them on unadorned stages, much like we see in the minimal but effective set in this production. Designer Jan Chambers's tasteful charcoal-colored dais pays understated tribute to the "platform performers" who kept audiences spellbound with their storytelling abilities alone.
We'd say it's unsurprising that Dooley, a PlayMakers veteran, achieves similar results here, but that would criminally minimize several feats. It wasn't enough for Dooley to just memorize the nearly thirteen thousand words in Milwaukee actor William Leach's adaptation. Dooley and director Michael Perlman then had to craft a ninety-minute show that didn't feel like a recital of forty-three single-spaced pages of text. That's tricky, and the pace slows at several points as Dooley negotiates Dickens's rich, descriptive prose.
The beginning of the show underlines the calculated risk Dickens took when he wrote his novella in 1843. With his family struggling, in desperate need of a hit, he chose a novel departure from the norm: a gothic ghost story with a Christmas twist. We can hear the author's barely sublimated anxiety in Dooley's measured voice as he utters the first words of Dickens's prologue, trying to reassure the readers of his time—and himself—that the "Ghost of an idea" in his "Ghostly little book" won't put his audience "out of humor with themselves ... the season, or with me."
With expert vocal and physical changes, Dooley shifts between his warm, anonymous narrator and a host of characters in the text. We meet a lean, vinegary Scrooge, a boisterous Ghost of Christmas Past, and an ambiguous Ghost of Christmas Present. Leach and Dooley's reading is deep enough to reacquaint us with vivid details lost in flimsier adaptations of this text, including the wider variety of spirits Marley rejoins, the warmth of Scrooge's past (contrasted by the coldness of his unmourned funeral), and other things that stir the soul in this often haunting production.