Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is the closest thing we have to a modern sacred text, and there’s only a few days left to catch it. Like the older scripture from which it arises, it connects social morality with the transcendent, this life with the promise or warning of what is to come. Its plot—the cynic’s conversion—is the model for every Christmas movie, from It’s A Wonderful Life to A Christmas Story to this year’s Elf.
The A.C.T. adaptation by Laird Williamson is everything one could ask. It preserves the psychological core of Dickens’s story: the desperate yearning beneath Scrooge’s harsh cynicism. It gives us splendid images of the three great ghosts, as well as Robert Blackman’s wonderfully suggestive and ingenious set. It uses child actors with unusual effectiveness. Its rapid pacing and stirring music conceal the dramatic weakness of individual episodes like Fezziwig’s ball or the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner. I have seen it many times before, and I am always glad to see it again.
This year I especially enjoyed the energetic, good-humored Fred of Jeff Galfer, Jud Williford’s poignant Bob Cratchit, and Tommy A. Gomez’s grand Ghost of Christmas Present. On the other hand, in the performance I saw, the Scrooge of Rhonnie Washington, an understudy, was a bit tentative, not horrified enough by Marley’s Ghost, not sharp enough in his early exchanges with Bob Cratchet and Fred, not liberated enough at the end. I didn’t like Washington’s yelps and hoots, and I missed the Scrooges of Christmas Past. In addition, Craig Slaight has added an occasional false note to the current production, such as the mood-wrecking moment in which Scrooge wiggles his backside at the audience.
These are minor flaws in a gorgeous ensemble production, however, and they shouldn’t keep anyone from going to see it. When the Ghost of Christmas Present is revealed perched high up on Blackman’s set, when poor Jacob Marley appears through the fog with all his chains, or when the entire cast joins in singing Lee Hoiby’s lovely carol (“Joy Have They Who Give Good Cheer”), it is impossible not to feel a bit of the real Christmas spirit, as much of it as we can find in a frantic and secular age.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Adapted by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers, directed by Craig Slaight, through Dec. 26. Tickets $19-$68 at the Geary Theater box office, 415 Geary St., San Francisco or by phone at (415) 749-2228.