As ubiquitous as mistletoe, holly and poinsettias, "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens invariably lumbers its way into our hearts each year at Christmas, always managing to snare us with its tale of forgiveness and rebirth.

As performed by the Fauquier Community Theatre, the play delivers once again. Though it suffers from some amateur acting and occasionally clunky execution, this is "A Christmas Carol" as it should be performed: being sweet without being saccharin, depicting wretchedness without being miserable and issuing its moral without being pedantic.

The Fauquier Community Theatre has chosen wisely to play this one straight, with a joyful addition of well-sung carols, letting the audience revel in Dickens' wonderful story.

And it's to this production's great credit that though I have seen "A Christmas Carol" more times than I can remember, my eyes still teared up toward the end as "a miser is changed from money to men."

The plot concerns the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the grouchiest grinch of all time. This version (and there are many), adapted by modern playwright Israel Horovitz, focuses more on the ghoulish Jacob Marley, who comes back from the dead to save Scrooge from his own damned fate.

But even with the introduction of this otherworldly narrator, the action is much the same as always. To make the switch, Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts -- of Christmas past, present and future -- who show him where he's been and where he's going.

No surprise: The attention works, and Scrooge gets a change of heart by getting a heart. The whole crew is here: Bob Cratchit, Fred, Mr. Fezziwig and Tiny ("God bless us every one") Tim. And, of course, "Bah, humbug."

"A Christmas Carol" could never work without the perfectly nasty Scrooge, and that's exactly how Frank Bingman plays this one. Wrinkled and pruny, prickly and stickly, he slits his eyes and spits out diatribes against Christmas. This is a part easy to overdo, and Bingman doesn't. As his savior Marley, Jim Shepard is grave and scary with wide-open eyes and creepy moans.

And Michael Speidel's Tiny Tim is beyond cute. I've seen many child actors take this part to dangerously saccharin levels, but Speidel is quietly effective with an endearing disposition. The rest of the cast is uneven, many too wooden and slow on cue and blooping too many lines.

There is a problem, too, with movement. The Loft, where the troupe performs, is a delightfully innovative space, but the cast makes too much noise going from scene to scene. Feet clomp loudly on wooden floors, props bang noisily into place and there's too much shuffling about. Director Bill Speidel needs to tighten this up.

There are no problems, though, with the spirit of the whole endeavor -- it's Christmas, through and through.

For me, the best parts were the carols between scenes, including "The Holly and the Ivy," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Snow in the Street." The tunes, finely rendered, lend that old English mood to the proceedings.

And just in time. The play's message of renewal gives the holiday season meaning again. And judging from the many children in the audience, there will always be new eyes to appreciate this.

There are rewards for old eyes, too. As the voices sing and "tell great tidings strange and true," we are transported to the spot where Christmas should truly live -- in the heart.

The play continues Friday, Saturday and Sunday at The Loft, 9 N. Third St., Warrenton.