An Irish Carol , now in its second of hopefully many annual appearances at Keegan Theatre, is not your father’s Christmas Carol. Unless you father is a drunken, aging Irishman hanging about in a near-deserted pub on the eve of Christmas.
This re-imagining is the brainchild of Dubliner Matthew Keenan and has all the trappings we might expect in an update. Except that the only real ghost in this retelling more closely resembles Clarence in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” than old Marley and his grimly rattling chains.
In Keenan’s update, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed into a bitter sourpuss of a pub owner named David (Kevin Adams). David’s hapless bartender, a young Polish émigré named Bartek (Josh Sticklin), bears the brunt of the boss’ snarling put-downs and threats as his job, no matter how oppressive, helps to support him, his wife, and their young special-needs daughter.
Instead of ghosts dropping in during this dark and stormy Christmas Eve evening, the pub is visited by several of the establishment’s few remaining customers.. Frank (Timothy H. Lynch) and Jim (David Jourdan) seem to be stand-ins for the Ghost of Christmas Past. They represent, respectively, the lonelier and the sunnier sides of long-ago year-end holidays as they spin their various funny and nostalgic tales.
Simon (Jon Townson)—who seems roughly a Gen Xer—and his good-natured but somewhat skeptical fiancée Anna (Susan Marie Rhea) represent the Ghost of Christmas Present. Both are in love with life. But already, Simon—a former employee of David—is showing unmistakable signs of the kind of business obsessions that caused David’s own life to take a dark turn.
Late in the game, we eventually meet Richard (Mick Tinder), let’s say, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Richard, too, is a onetime business associate of David, a former co-owner of the pub. The pair’s relationship had run aground long ago over an inadvertent love triangle. Richard has arrived, unannounced, in a likely hopeless attempt to patch up the quarrel, bearing in hand a mysterious missive that may hold the answer.
Added to this mix is a brief but telling appearance by David’s sunnier younger brother Michael (Mike Kozemchak) clearly a stand-in here for Scrooge’s young nephew. Michael’s annual invitations to his Christmas party always go unanswered by his older brother, and this year will be no exception.
Keenan knits the pub and Celtic atmospherics of The Weir into this retelling of Dickens’ beloved if sentimental tale. Both emphasize a belief that, no matter how dismal and sorrowful one’s past might have been, love and Christian charity will invariably bring about both joy and redemption and the kind of happiness and peace that’s never too late in life to achieve.
The route that Irish Carol takes toward David’s redemption, however, is a contemporary one. Unlike most productions of and updates to A Christmas Carol, An Irish Carol is loaded with plenty of Irish-flavored, but salty, speechifying, so this isn’t a holiday delight that’s suitable for wee folk. (Keegan recommends the play for theatergoers 16 and older.)
That said, it’s the kind of authentic, off-the-cuff stuff we’ve heard in many Dublin pubs ourselves, making this Christmas drama less sentimental and more adult than the typical holiday fare.
It’s somewhat surprise ending is more rooted in reality than the imaginative holiday visions of either Dickens or Hollywood director Frank Capra, demonstrating that spirits really can influence our lives even if those spirits might not be quite what we’d imagined them to be.
The acting is hearty, brusque, and highly effective in the way that it brings home the peculiar linguistic spin and feisty inner spirit of the Irish people. This comes across even if the Irish accents don’t always sound quite right. This isn’t a problem, of course, for Josh Sticklin, who’s tangled Polish-English syntax is actually quite good.
As the play’s central intelligence and main character, Kevin Adams is quite dislike-ably good as the bitter David who needs to hit bottom before even considering the alternative. The supporting cast gives Adams a good run for his money, their characters sticking by him like loyal friends even though he should have worn out their patience long ago.
An Irish Carol
Closes December 31, 2012
Church Street Theater
1742 Church Street, NW
1 hour, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
On the other hand, both brother Michael and onetime business partner Richard do find their patience sorely taxed and lash out in an attempt to get David to refocus before it’s too late. It’s a nice splash of realism.
Susan Marie Rhea is surprisingly effective as Anna, the only female character in a sea of good ol’ boys. It’s she who’s able to focus on the fatal flaw in David’s—as well as Simon’s—characters, leading to an emotional pivot that’s central to this play’s success.
Mark A. Rhea’s direction is light and understated, which allows each character to become him or herself without any sense of artificiality. Costuming, lighting, and sound were all well designed, lending the onstage pub a warm and cozy atmosphere, although the lighting flickered a bit during the production we attended.
And one especially magical stage detail is worthy of note: Bartek gave the appearance of pulling actual pints behind the bar, which might send you out into the night thirsting for a foaming brew.
An Irish Carol by Matthew Keenan . Directed by Mark A. Rhea . Featuring Jon Townson, David Jourdan, Susan Marie Rhea , Josh Sticklin, Timothy Lynch, Mick Tinder, Mike Kozemchak and Kevin Adams. Set design: Mark A Rhea . Lighting: Dan Martin . Costuming: Kelly Peacock . Sound: Jake Null . Produced by Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Terry Ponick