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Theater companies stage `A Christmas Carol' in contrasting ways but end up with results that are stirring, instructive, and good for the box office - sometimes year after year

CHARLES DICKENS dashed off ``A Christmas Carol'' in six weeks, before the Christmas of 1843. He then published it himself in an exquisite though inexpensive volume. He wanted families to read it aloud around the hearth. He meant his tale to become, in effect, a new Christmas tradition. And it certainly has. Ever since ``A Christmas Carol'' sold out during its first day on booksellers' shelves, it has changed the face of Christmas celebrations. The modern conception of an ``old-fashioned'' Christmas bears the imprint of Dickens's sentiments all over it.

``A Christmas Carol'' was adapted for the stage by 1844 and since then scores of stage versions have graced the boards. Thirty-seven films, dozens of recordings, and several TV adaptations have celebrated the transformation of a mean-spirited old miser whose confrontation with the past and future turns him, in a single night, to a new path.

In this tale of the remorse and reclamation of a ``squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,'' some fragment of the season's meaning resides still, drawing audiences.

The Goodman Theatre here has produced ``A Christmas Carol'' every year for the last 13, selling out most performances.

The play is now in its 15th season at the American Conservatory Theater in San Fransisco, the most attended play in ACT history.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's lavish first run of ``A Christmas Carol'' is also selling out performances.

Tom Creamer, who adapted the story for the Goodman production, says, ``It's one of the greatest stories ever written. ... The story of rebirth is a recapitulation of Christianity. It touches very deep things in us.''

The stage adaptation by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers, used for 15 years at ACT, is the one in use at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Mr. Williamson, who also directed the Denver production, says the story addresses one of the great problems of our time: alienation.

``It's very powerful,'' Williamson told me. ``Scrooge has closed himself off from the whole world in his pursuit of money for its own sake. He has tunnel-vision. It takes a re-entering into life, a rebirth, shedding the past, becoming a child again. Part of the celebration of Christmas each year is seeing this story again.

``There's a part of most of us that gets Scroogified during the year,'' Williamson continues. ``In all the difficulties of living, we sometimes tend to get closed off. Dickens's story is about coming together with family and friends around the hearth.''

Williamson's production emphasizes the child within Scrooge more pointedly than many other productions. The one-piece set is a collage-construction of ledger books, safe-boxes, clocks, and an odd assortment of toys - all painted gray. As the story wears on and Scrooge changes, parts of the set open up and disappear, in a de-materialization of his life and a stripping away of the unsolved problems of the past.

All three productions emphasize Dickens's social concerns. The DCTC and the ACT productions carry the religious element of the story a little further than the Goodman's.

ACT's Powers finds ``A Christmas Carol'' to be the definitive seasonal story in our language. ``But it is also a scathing indictment of social injustice as Dickens saw it. The `Ignorance and Want' section of the story is often left out of adaptations,'' he notes.

In the original tale, Dickens takes Scrooge through many a humble abode on Christmas Eve. Ignorance and Want stand revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who warns Scrooge of the dire consequences of neglect. ``For on their brows I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it, and bide the end.''

Shortly before writing ``A Christmas Carol,'' Dickens visited the so-called ``ragged'' schools of London - charitable institutions where volunteer teachers taught the fundamentals of education and religion to poverty-stricken children. He was horrified at the despicable conditions but heartened by their eagerness to learn and the teachers' spirit.

`HE identified very strongly with these kids,'' Creamer says. ``The language he gave the Ghost of Christmas Present about ignorance and want is very similar to language he used in a letter to a philanthropist friend.'' Dickens's own childhood had been scarred by a stint in a boot-blacking factory he was never to forget. ``Scrooge is a man who will never rest or come to peace until he exhumes the ghosts of his past and understands what he went through as a child,'' Creamer contends. ``Dickens is Scrooge in that sense.''

Goodman director Steve Scott adds, ``What makes [the tale] so personal and specific to his times also makes it universal. We all identify with Scrooge to a certain extent. ... That sense of rebirth, of facing the past and understanding the past, we can all understand.''

Creamer says, ``To me, what is most appealing is what `A Christmas Carol' says about the possibility that we can change.'' Scott agrees. ``That's what I find so attractive about it. What it says is: You can become another person.

``Then too,'' Scott adds with a grin, ``it's one of the great ghost stories. Each of the ghosts is very different on a very primal level. There's Jacob Marley, a scary ghost. Then there's a benevolent ghost, then a happy ghost, and then the scariest ghost - the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It's a funny play, too. It has everything - humor, ghosts, family, and music.''

I have not seen the ACT production, but I'm told it's close in theme and style to the DCTC production. Both the DCTC and Goodman productions offer marvelous insights into both Dickens's vision and the peculiar needs of our own time. Both emphasize the need for community. Both offer outstanding performances by their respective Scrooges. Both use music beautifully.

The Goodman's dance sequence at the Fezziwig party is profoundly beautiful. The DCTC's original score by Lee Hoiby, with lyrics by Laird Williamson (also part of the ACT production), captures the themes of the story as if they were ancient carols rediscovered. But if Creamer's adaptation sparkles with true Dickensian wit, it suffers from a secularization Dickens never intended. And if Williamson's contributes psychological foreshadowing, it occasionally lapses into a contemporary mysticism not quite true to Dickens either.

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