‘Tis the season when almost every theater company stages its own adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The challenge is always finding a new way to engage with audiences or adding a unique spin on this chestnut without losing its charm. By looking into local history, this new(ish) version currently onstage at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company—it made its spectacular debut last season—faithfully adapted from Dickens’ novel by Laura Rocklyn and ably directed by CSC member Erin Bone Steele creates a Charm City classic for all ages.
It’s set in 1842, and there are many topical references to historic Baltimore: Scrooge (Gregory Burgess) lives in a set of rooms in a mansion in fashionable Mt. Vernon, while Bob Cratchit (Paul Diem) and his family live in the smaller row homes of Fells Point, and Young Scrooge grew up in nearby Ellicott City, where CSC hosts its summer outdoor theater productions. Even the accounting firm of Scrooge and Marley is set at the intersection of German (now Redwood) and Calvert Streets, the grand home of CSC’s theater and, rather appropriately, once the site of the Mercantile Bank Building. Mollie Singer replicates the brick exterior and majestic arched windows of this very building in the set design with Industrial-era steel and wood for the stairs and sliding warehouse-style doors. The rest of the set remains simple: a large table, several wooden stools, and a small coal stove, but allows us to visit Baltimore factories and even sailors setting off in the harbor, all celebrating Christmas in their own ways, creating community and mirth in dark times.
In “The City That Reads,” holiday parlor games make reference to Baltimorean author Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tales, and Charles Dickens himself (as played by David Yezzi) makes appearances at the beginning and end of the play.
At the height of his popularity, the 30-year-old author and social activist famously visited the United States in 1842 hoping to find an inspiring republic in the young country that would have righted the wrongs of its motherland. Riding a train across the States, he met with political leaders and presidents, economic and social reformers, fellow writers, artists, and philosophers, but his visits to orphanages, prisons, and plantations with enslaved people dissolved his idyllic view of America.
In this production, Dickens and Mrs. Mary Pickersgill (Katie Rey Bogdan)—a local figure famous for sewing the “star-spangled banner” and her advocacy for women’s social issues—visit Scrooge both before and after his miraculous conversion. Dickens wrote and published A Christmas Carol in 1843, the year after his American sojourn and (within the fiction of this play) his meeting with Scrooge, suggesting that literature’s most famous misanthrope is based on Baltimore’s “bah humbug!” bachelor.
And what a Scrooge we have in CSC member Gregory Burgess! He’s been playing the role of Ebenezer for eight seasons and fully embodies how a man mired in pettiness and greed can be reborn into someone younger, lighter, and full of love. In the beginning of the play, Burgess’ shoulders are hunched, his brow is furrowed, his eyes are squinted, and he barks out monosyllabic grunts at merrymakers.
During his visitations by the three ghosts, he begins to straighten his posture, open his eyes, and become receptive to the lessons to be learned from his past mistakes, his current cruelties, and the haunting visions of what may be. Brendan Edward Kennedy fills up the scene as the bon vivant Ghost of Christmas Present with his furred robe, booming voice, and hearty laugh; Molly Moores is an aristocratic Ghost of Christmas Past in an iridescent Rococo gown and powdered wig all emblazoned with twinkling lights (a costume that brought a round of applause); and three puppeteers (David Yezzi, Samuel Richie, and Shaquan Pearson) maneuver the silently menacing Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (one of several spooky specters in this production, but not too frightening for Tiny Tims in the audience). In the sequences with his ghostly guides, Burgess says less, but becomes a thoughtful observer and occasionally comments on what he can do to become a better man. In his few brief scenes in the past, Shaquan Pearson as Young Scrooge quietly shifts from a lonely student to an enamored youth to a vision of the coldhearted man he will become, while Burgess plays a Scrooge who quickly softens into a kinder figure.
But it’s on Christmas morning when Scrooge awakens a changed man that Burgess shines: jumping into the air and clicking his heels, shouting with glee, greeting friends with giddy laughter, handing out coins to carolers, and even hugging a confused Charles Dickens.
A Christmas Carol is a story about our duty to care for others, and while Scrooge may be on the outside of society, the large ensemble cast creates a sense of conviviality and kindness, all decked out in Victorian finery—plaids and paisleys, red-ribboned bonnets, and green scarves by costume designer Kristina Lambdin. A group of carolers and townspeople become the chorus, narrating Scrooge’s story and retaining much of Dickens’ wry narrative voice, and offering transitions between scenes through traditional Christmas carols (with nods to music director Grace Srinivasan, composer Sarah O’Halloran, choreographer Shea Hemby, fiddler Ellie Cattle, and standout soloists Brandon Shaw McKnight and Lauren Davis for their musical contributions).
Lauren Davis as Frances, Scrooge’s ever-optimistic and indefatigable niece, is a radiant presence of grace and generosity. Paul Diem and Lauren Erica Jackson are nicely paired as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit; as the abused clerk, Diem quietly undercuts his boss’ meanness with looks of sympathy, projects gentleness and warmth in the exchanges with his large family, and looks utterly broken in his grief-stricken future scenes, while Jackson provides a bit of stoicism and disdain as Mrs. Cratchit, rightfully wary of Scrooge’s motives. And Emily Zinski as the hostess with the most Mrs. Fezziwig and Andrea Spitz as Scrooge’s grumbling charwoman are both strong comedic reliefs. Yet these are the kind-hearted, generous, loving, and sometimes silly folks that Scrooge shut out of his life for so long.
After his visitation, Scrooge has his famous epiphany: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
In Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s A Christmas Carol, it is by turning to a vision of Baltimore’s past that this production creates a strong adaptation that will continue to enchant local audiences for generations to come.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
A Christmas Carol plays through December 23, 2023, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Adult tickets start at $55; tickets for youth under 25 start at $29. Subscriptions and tickets can be purchased by calling 410-244-8570, ordering online at ChesapeakeShakespeare.com, or visiting the Box Office in person. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
The program for A Christmas Carol is online here.
A Christmas Carol
Adapted from Charles Dickens by Laura Rocklyn
Directed by Erin Bone Steel
Gregory Burgess* – Ebenezer Scrooge
Katie Rey Bogdan – Mrs. Pickersgill/Businessperson 3
Morganne Chu – Belle
Lauren Davis* – Frances
Paul Diem – Bob Cratchit
Lauren Erica Jackson – Mrs. Cratchit
Brendan Edward Kennedy – Christmas Present/Joshua
Brandon McKnight – Dick Wilkins/Horace/Business Person
Molly Moores* – Ghost of Christmas Past/Louisa/Businessperson 2
Samuel Richie – Jacob Marley/Nicholas
Andrea Spitz – Mrs. Dilber
Shaquan Pearson – Young Scrooge/Topper
David Yezzi – Mr. Fezziwig/Charles Dickens
Tiffany Zeigler – Martha Cratchit/Harriet/Betsy
Emily Zinksi – Mrs. O’Leary/Mrs. Fezziwig/Nancy
Kynnedi Curtis – Want/Little Fan
Mckenzie Nace – Belinda Cratchit/German Caroler Child
Ryan Macdonald – William/Peter
River Robinson – Tiny Tim/Ignorance
Bowie Walker – Tiny Tim/Ignorance
Tiffany Zeigler – Want/Little Fan
Erin Bone Steele* – Director
Sarah Curnoles* – Production Manager
Kris DiBastiani – Production Stage Manager
Dan O’Brien* – Technical Director & Facilities Manager
Mollie Singer – Set Designer
Grace Srinivasan* – Music Director
Kristina Lambdin* – Costume Designer
Kaite McCreary* – Lighting Designer
Sarah O’Halloran – Sound Designer
Caitlin Bouxsein – Props Designer
Chris Reuther – Puppet Designer
Shalyce Hemby – Choreographer
Hannah Brill – Wardrobe Supervisor & Wig Consultant
Cat Moreschi – Assistant Stage Manager
Dawn Thomas Reidy* – Production Associate
Tyrel Brown – Production Assistant
Trinity Joseph – Board Operator
Vanessa Strickland- Child Minder
Mandy Benedix* – COVID Safety Officer
Pam Forton* – Senior House Manager
*Member of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company