A CHRISTMAS CAROL, adapted by Rae Allen and Timothy Near; directed by Rae Allen; settings and costumes by Christina Weppner; puppets by Ingrid Crepeau; with John Cullum, Ann Blessing, Jonathan Dyas-Sysel, Nicholas Guest, Mary Irev and Douglas Stender.

At Ford's Threatre through Jan. 3.

Ford's Theatre's second annual "Christmas Carol" fulfills its highest ambition. Its highest ambition, unfortunately, is not very high.

The driving impulse behind this show seems to be fear of fear itself. The creators appear determined to get through the story without causing a monent's discomfort or distress in even the youngest most fragile members of their audience. So they present Ebenezer Scrooge a lovable old coot who doesn't really mean his meanness. Even as he is chewing out Bob Cratchit, kicking beggars from his path or muttering "Bah, humbugs" right and left, he finds a way of telegraphing us that, all the superficial evidence notwithstanding, he's a sweetheart at heart.

When a narrator describes Scrooge as going home "with a growl," Scrooge himself turns to the audience, flashes his teeth, and emits a friendly "Grrrrr."

The result of this condescending approach, unsurprisingly, is that when Scrooge is struck by the Christmas spirit, it's hard to see the change -- and harder to care. The production not only fails to inspire apprehension or anguish, but, to judge from unexcited young faces of Sunday's preview audience, fails to inspire much of anything else.

The Scrooge in the case is John Cullum, star of Broadway musicals "Shenandoah" and "On the Twentieth Century." Underneath a rather silly and implausible wig (which he was continually straightening Sunday afternoon, apparently for laughs), Cullum's performance seems under-conceived, under-rehearsed, under-directed, under-emoted and, in short, virtually nonexistent.

Compounding matters, Rae Allen and Timothy Near's adaptation of the Dickens tale take forever to get going. It looks as if the authors couldn't decide among several different notions of how to start the show and compromised by using them all. And when the preliminaries are over and we are introduced to Scrooge and his counting house, the script jumps past the pre-born-again phase of his career so disjointedly -- with so many asides, extraneous musical interludes, bits of narration and other excursions in and out of character -- that following the actual story is like tracking a woodchuck in a cornfield.

The shame of it is that the ingredients for a thoroughly satisfying "Christmas Carol" are here -- a talented cast, colorful scenery and costumes, a vigorous lineup of ghostly special effects and a particularly splendid, luminous green giant of a Ghost of Christmas Future.

With a fair amount of cutting, rewriting and just plain rethinking, this could be one of the pleasures of the holiday season rather than one of its duties. In the meantime, children (or adults) who need a Dickens fix at this time of the year should scour the TV schedules for the Alistair Sim movie of "A Christmas Carol," which is 30 years old, black-and-white, frightening, funny and beautiful.