Christmas Carol 1941
By James Magruder
Directed by Molly Smith
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Who knew that the age-old Christmas Carol story could be adapted to wartime Washington, D.C and filled with such local and national history? Talented playwright James Magruder has internalized the familiar messages of memory, retribution, and second chances, and offers a whole new twist to the familiar tale, highlighting Washington’s history, war-time struggles, and the ever present cranking levers of the federal machinery that define this fascinating place.
It’s a major undertaking, and as a brand new world premiere has its share of bumpy spots, but for the most part, valiantly resurrects buried treasure troves of information about the city, its historical and wartime legacy and values. Christmas Carol 1941 remains true to the basic messages of one of the most touching and timeless holiday tales by positioning the story in a local Washington, D.C. context with national wartime implications, searingly relevant to today – in other words, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
We’re all familiar with the heartwarming tale of the miser who learns the error of his ways on Christmas Eve with visits from three ghosts who provide such insights about his miserable life that he’s transformed and ends up skipping through the streets shouting loving Xmas pleasantries with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” start-over kind of feel. It’s got built-in timeless appeal, almost Pavlovian – crank up the ghosts for the holiday misanthrope to glimpse at his not wonderful life, show the traumatic wounds from his own deprived beginnings, hint at the horrors that await if he doesn’t change, and voilá, a new, enlivened and enlightened Mr. Scrooge, or in this case, Strube (same long “u” pronunciation). Of course we all know by now that even the name conjures up the cheap penny-pinching meany of bah humbug fame, so even the slight alteration isn’t enough to detract from the message of redemption and transformation-if it can happen to the likes of him, then, by golly, there is hope for us one and all. Resistance is futile, the heartstrings will be tugged.
The historical overlay that Magruder uses to frame the story while fascinating, feels rather bulky in some sections. Still, the production works for the most part. Sometimes, the exposition gets slathered on a bit thick, and I’m not sure how the youngsters in the audience are able to take it all in, but from the reactions that I saw, they seemed to be okay with it. In one early scene, for example, Nancy Robinette as wife and Mom Schroen strings popcorn while providing a rather longish exposition of the earlier “Great” War and the devastating aftermath. Robinette pulls it off because she’s, well, Robinette, still, it ends just in time before you’d have to add “History teacher” as one of her secondary characters.
The other supporting characters are just as effective, namely Lawrence Redmond as the mild-mannered clerk, Henry Schroen. Like James Gale who plays Strube, Redmond’s character also runs a wide gamut from desperate acceptance of his fate, to concerned family man, to holding down the fort no matter what. His nicely textured interpretations add depth to what otherwise would be a rather one-dimensional character. What he can do with a pause, a phrase, a stare and stance, look effortless. Very nice work
I’ve saved the best for last because it would not be a show without a decent Scrooge, or Strube or whatever you call him. He’s got to deliver, and James Gale does that in silver bells and sleigh rides. He’s got a New York background and international UK experience and it shows. Gale hits every mark with gusto. Whether brow beating his assistant, trying to fondle the gold tinged angel, or hovering high above the action in a canoe-like contraption to observe the life below, Gale has a fun-filled interpretation of his character, a hearty laugh, nice physicality in grappling all aspects of the two-tiered set and the high floating perch, and even has a not unpleasant sing-song voice for the rally the troops musical number.
Even without singing, Gale’s playful rendition of the song is actually the best part of it, since despite the spectacular pedigree of the musical collaborators — lyrist, Susan Birkenhead and composer Henry Krieger – the music is actually quite drab. How anyone who worked on Dreamgirls and Jelly’s Last Jam could suck the woogie out of the boogie escapes me but somehow, they did. Their rendition of “He is safe now, let him rest” sounds more like a dreary school anthem than an authentic tribute to the fallen.
Never mind, the terrific costumes make up for the bah humbug music. Vicki R. Davis has spared no expense in outfitting the entire ensemble in high quality, full length festive period pieces for the holiday scenes, authentic uniforms for the G-men marching in their military drill formation, and bright, colorful attire for the swinging USO numbers.
Plus, the creative use of the stage serves as a fine farewell to the Fichandler space which will be closed for nearly three years of renovations. William Schmuck, Design Director at the Shaw Festival in Canada celebrates the theater-in-the round format instead of apologizing for it, successfully dividing the stage so that one-third of it is lower for an effective two-tiered effect. An old mimeograph machine anchors one end and the table which serves as a makeshift bed for Strube to fitfully tumble into and out of, sits on the other. Plus, the center stage platform that rises from beneath the floor which is almost disruptive in other productions works perfectly here, in one scene hoisting a beautifully adorned table with all the tasty fixings of a scrumptious Christmas spread.
James Magruder is proving to be a consistent even formidable writing force as well as a local guy does good. He based some of the characters on his own family legacy -his maternal grandparents, the Schroens, lived and worked in Washington, D.C. all their lives, and he includes so many juicy tidbits about local spots that you might have to see the production several times to catch and appreciate all the references. Even the three Christmas ghosts are Washington monuments, literally, they are statues (beautifully and regally attired, of course)..
As a work in progress, Christmas Carol 1941 serves an important role by providing an insightful glimpse and a loving tribute to the rich history of Washington, D.C. It’s got a way to go before becoming a staple, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it resurfaces in future seasons. In this first effort, Magruder and Arena have done us all proud.
Running Time: 2 hours
Where: Arena Stage, 11012 Sixth Street, S.W.
When: Thru December 30th. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30pm, Thursday ,Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 2:00 pm.
Info: call (202) 488-3300 / or consult: http://www.arenastage.org/.