It’s not the season to be pitting versions of “A Christmas Carol” against one another. Interpretations of the Dickens classic must run into the thousands, and if you have a favorite — well, God bless you, every one. Right now, mine is actor Paul Morella’s solo version at the Olney Theatre Center.
It’s a friendly one-man show (Morella, in a Victorian suit, greets you at the door) that faithfully sticks to the Dickens novella over its swift two hours. What you hear is exactly what Dickens wrote, rich descriptions and all. This was originally a ghost story, and that’s how it feels as Morella stands alone on a shadowy stage, looking you in the eye as cranky old Ebenezer Scrooge begins his jittery night.
Morella narrates and plays dozens of characters, switching with a storyteller’s ease. His Scrooge has a pinched voice like cold tin, and a scowl to match. Leaning back and rubbing his belly, Morella becomes one of the portly, grinning charity workers foolishly asking Scrooge for a holiday donation. He steps downstage into thin shafts of blue and white light, and suddenly you see the tormented face of dead Jacob Marley.
The theatrics around the acting are understated but wonderful. (Dennis A. Blackledge is credited as director of production.) The set is sparsely furnished — a desk, a coat rack, a chair and an ottoman — and the back walls are left black as the deepest night. Sonya Dowhaluk’s lighting design plays clever little tricks, as does Edward Moser’s sound, especially when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future sweep Scrooge through their weird portals. Stage fog has a first-rate supporting role.
Morella plainly loves the book, and he trusts it. His efficient performance isn’t flamboyant, even when he seems to enter about a dozen times in a few seconds as guests join the Fezziwigs’ big holiday party. He never fully changes costumes, but his suggestions are effective as he etches Mrs. Cratchit making her wiseacre toast to her husband’s miserly boss, the intimidating ghosts cutting Scrooge down to size, the beaming Tiny Tim, and the transformed Scrooge when his long night’s lessons are over.
Good taste governs the night. It’s never hasty and never slack, and Morella so thoroughly plays the host that he greets you again on the way out. That’s the spirit.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas adapted by Paul Morella from the novella by Charles Dickens. Director of production, Dennis A. Blackledge. About two hours. Through Dec. 27 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets: $18-$36. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.