'Twas a month before Christmas, and all through the house -- the Port Tobacco Players Theater in La Plata, that is -- barely a seat was available when "A Christmas Carol" opened Friday.
By the dress rehearsal, Players President Richard Reckeweg reported, more than three-quarters of the run's seats over three straight weekends had been spoken for.
At that warm-up performance Tuesday night, a passel of youngsters in the audience, along with an assemblage of adults, applauded this latest production of the holiday chestnut in the Port Tobacco Players' 55th season. Directed by Gordon Brown, the troupe has stuck to the hoary lineaments of the Charles Dickens tale, here adapted by Brian Way.
Familiarity has spawned many adaptations of this classic. For example, Arlington's Signature Theatre is putting on "The Christmas Carol Rag," wherein that crusty curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, has been morphed into equally evil Evelyn Scrooge, in a musical shifted from a Dickensian London to an immigrant-teeming New York a century later.
The Players had enough on their hands a couple of weeks ago when their redoubtable Gordon O'Neill, veteran of such leading roles as Don Quixote and Zorba the Greek, was compelled by medical contretemps to bow out as Scrooge. Into the breach stepped David Bayles, who had been rehearsing as a triple-threat narrator, schoolmaster and a character called Joe. By the dress rehearsal, he had made the role his and performed with certitude, if not panache.
The new narrator, Carol Charnock -- who doubles offstage as the producer -- sets the tone in vintage Dickensian language at the start on an all-but-bare set, describing the miserly Ebenezer as "a covetous old sinner." (Her son Tom will fill in for her a few times during the run.)
A curtain pulled back on one side reveals Scrooge hard at work at his counting house desk, soon to revile his beaten-down clerk, the ill-paid Bob Cratchitt (Peter Weeks), who repeatedly rubs hands and arms in a vain effort to conjure up some warmth, as well as to show subservience. And after Scrooge, with plenteous servings of humbug, dispatches a pair of charity-seekers as well as friendly nephew Fred (a winning David Peters), the scene is set for more than a simple cheerless night at Scrooge's gloomy digs.
You know what happens next. First, in clanks the chain-dragging gray ghost of Scrooge's long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, to warn Ebenezer that he'd better change his ways -- or else.
Then, one by one come the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Marlene Cleaveland), Present (a robust Mark Anderson) and Yet to Be (black-cloaked Bernadette Perry, with literally bare-bone hands).
They reveal the facets and fates of the Cratchitt fivesome, led by Bob's purposeful wife (Cynthia Ibanez), crippled Tiny Tim (Matthew Klein, hopping along with a rustic cane), and a succession of young and old whose circumstances and happenstances force a late cry from Scrooge to his ghost guide: "Show me a tender moment or I shall be lost forever!" Finally, Scrooge's own headstone pops up on stage -- never mind how reluctantly it later returns below decks.
Making it all happen is a cast of 32, several of them doubling up on roles (the animated Tony Casares is both Fezziwig and a charity collector). Some are at home with a British accent, others eschew any Londonesque flavor, but when you add it all up, with the tapes of dwelling musical backdrop, periodic mist from a fog machine and the underlying lesson of love thy neighbor -- or at least extend him or her a helping hand -- there is no recourse but to cite the final words of Tiny Tim:
"God bless us, every one."
"A Christmas Carol" runs weekends through Dec. 15 at the Port Tobacco Players Theater, Charles Street at Oak Avenue, La Plata. Curtain time is 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with matinee performances at 3 p.m. next Sunday and Dec. 14. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, call the box office at 301-932-6819.