For its holiday-themed play of the season, the Providence Players of Fairfax chose an extremely ambitious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” by Rob Zapple that’s set in Missouri during the Great Depression.
The classic Dickens iteration follows a miserly businessman in 18th-Century London, Ebenezer Scrooge (played here by David Whitehead), as he’s visited by his late business partner, Marley (Steven Palkovitz), who warns him of three Christmas ghosts. The ghosts show him his effects on others in his past, present and future and transform him into a more generous person towards his nephew, Fred (Kyle McClain), and employee Bob Cratchit (Daniel Lavanga).
“It’s related to Christmas because of the theme of giving. It’s a tale about redemption and rebirth,” said director Beth Giles-Whitehead who has been nominated for several Washington Area Theater Community Honors with her past PPF productions.
The Providence Players’ story is framed through a travelling troubadour during the Great Depression who’s asked by the townsfolk to read “A Christmas Carol” in exchange for gas. Naturally, the man remembers the story as set in Missouri which gives the audience the opportunity to experience these iconic characters with Midwestern accents and costumes.
On top of that, the play layers a wonderful soundscape of music with many of the background players humming Christmas tunes. In keeping with the Midwestern motif, there is a small bluegrass combo performing in various combinations throughout the play.
There’s a lot to appreciate about the efforts to create a strong sense of place here with the set design (two ornate wooden shacks that seem entirely functional were built for this production), music and costumes that go a step above. Additionally, the play deserves credit for a large ensemble that tonally stays on the same page in terms of the needed balance of levity, sadness and heightened realism. Most people who are attending this play will know how this story ends yet it’s a testament to David Whitehead’s performance that the end still packs an emotional punch. So in terms of executing this script, Beth Gilles-Whitehead and her cast do their job well.
The question, however, is what the script is trying to accomplish. Rob Zapple decided to adapt the play to a shantytown (or “Hooverville” as it was known in the local vernacular) outside Saint Louis during the Great Depression because he saw the similarities between that period of American history and Dickensonian Times.
But how does this larger theme play itself out in any way other than simply sticking Dickens’ characters in Midwestern clothing? The characters in the imagination of the troubadour could pass for British or Missourian as their language doesn’t seem to particularly lean too strongly towards either dialect and the same can be said about nearly every other aspect of the script. The difficult-to-pin-down nature of this story setting-wise is intended as a commentary on similarities between the two points in place and time, but such a theme picks fights with the excellent production work that screams “this is Missouri!”
Is Zapple’s approach to the story disastrously off-base or a stroke of genius? Ultimately, it’s a flimsy excuse to see “A Christmas Carol” with rip-roaring bluegrass music and a stylish twist.
Half of all proceeds of the play will benefit the Young Hearts Foundation, a local family charity that raises money in support of the leukemia and lymphoma society.
“A Christmas Carol” will be playing Dec. 13 – 15 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. showing on Sunday, Dec. 16. at the James Lee Community Center (2855 Annandale Rd. Falls Church). Tickets can be purchased at the door or online.