A Little Dickens

A TV critic envisions a more inspired Christmas Carol.

Mark Dawidziak sympathizes with us. The local writer and actor's initial reaction to his wife's desire to stage A Christmas Carol was the same as ours: "I rolled my eyes," he says. "I was stunned. There are Christmas Carols coming out of the trees every year."

But he hit upon an idea to freshen the musty holiday perennial: They'd present Charles Dickens's oft-told tale, of grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve redemption, as a three-person play centered on Dickens himself. "The conceit is that the audience is there to hear Dickens read A Christmas Carol," he explains. "He reads it from a podium . . . Scrooge appears, and the book comes to life around him."

The concept took shape about a year ago, when Dawidziak's actress wife, Sara Showman, offered her proposal. Dawidziak, The Plain Dealer's TV critic and a Dickens buff, got to thinking. "It's a very personal story," he says. "The trouble with a lot of stage adaptations is that distance is created between the characters, the story, and the audience. I thought, 'Can we cut the distance? Can we return it to its authentic language?'

"I don't think there's anything wrong with telling the story to children, but this isn't a story that was written for them."

Dawidziak, in period garb, plays Dickens; Tom Stephan plays Scrooge; Showman plays everyone else. "It's the theatrical equivalent of a trapeze act," Dawidziak explains. "You're twisting and you're turning constantly, and you're just there to catch each other."

Preparing for the production was equally arduous. "For a year, we haunted every secondhand shop and antiques store in the area," Dawidziak says. "We became Dickens scavengers, [looking] for the right kind of chains to make the right kind of noise."

The result is an ambitious stab at reconceptualizing a piece that has become so familiar that most people have seen multiple stage, screen, and even cartoon versions starring Mickey Mouse or Mr. Magoo. In the process, the story's once-powerful message has been trivialized. "This is a very dark story," Dawidziak says. "People think Christmas Carol, and they immediately think saccharine and light. But that doesn't work unless it's played against the dark. Dickens drags [us] through some of the darkest corners of the human soul.

"This is a story with an immense social conscience. Dickens wanted to shed light on a lot of awful conditions."

Still, Dawidziak isn't sure what to expect this weekend, when his take on the classic premieres. "We're asking the audience to use their imaginations," he says. "We're trying to be as suggestive as possible with as little as possible. [And] we're asking the audience to enter into the spirit of it. We'll know we're successful if we do it again next year." If not, there's always Mickey and company.