HOW DO YOU prevent an oft-performed holiday tale from becoming a chestnut? If you're Ford's Theatre, you try to stay true to the spirit of the original work while enhancing the piece with unique touches that change from year to year.

"A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas" marks the 25th time since 1979 that the historic theater has mounted an adaptation of Charles Dickens's Victorian classic. This rendition, adapted by Michael Wilson, had its regional debut last year.

"We have striven to not only stay true to the original structure of the story but also the spirit of Dickens's performance of the story," says director Matt August. "Dickens [himself] performed 'A Christmas Carol' all across Europe and America, and even in Washington, D.C., just after the Lincoln assassination. We begin the play with Dickens arriving at Ford's to perform the story. As he performs, he conjures all the actual ghosts that haunt Ford's Theatre, who then help him enact the rest of the story.

"Wilson has taken some of the most eloquent and profound passages from the text and dramatized them with an economy of words while still maintaining the emotional depth of Scrooge's journey."

August admires the way Wilson created three vendors -- an antique-doll seller, a fruit-cart owner and an inventor, all indebted to Scrooge -- to double as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. "That way, Scrooge's supernatural experience comes directly out of his own life, and his redemption has very direct and immediate consequences," August says.

Building upon last year's staging, "we gave the production a look that might be how Scrooge perceives the world, rather than trying to replicate the world as it was. This allowed us to stretch our own imaginations, and by extension, I think the audience stretches theirs as well." Highlights include ghostly special effects, including Marley's talking head, and humorous touches, such as Scrooge's outrageously tall desk and armchair, and the ghost of Christmas Present's glittery patchwork robe, which doubles as a Christmas tree.

While things may change each year, August wants one element to remain constant: Martin Rayner must play Scrooge.

"He is as dynamic an actor as I've ever seen, with a huge emotional range. He captures the terror, the joy, the pain and the salvation in a performance that keeps audiences riveted," August says.

"I try to make Scrooge a real human being rather than a stereotypical bad man," Rayner says of his interpretation. "He is a man who has gone astray. I try to show how that happened and how he finds his way back." The actor says "A Christmas Carol" continues to hold mass appeal for modern-day audiences because "like all great classics, this story comes down to very basic conflicts that anyone can relate to: good and evil, caring and non-caring."

"We see such choices everywhere we look today. . . . A man learning to care again for his fellow man is not far removed from any one of us deciding whether to send some money to help victims of a situation like New Orleans."