It’s a winter-cold mid-week December afternoon in Washington. The senior citizens have come in early. The bustling children and teenagers bounce in last, energized. Now, the lights dim and Ford’s Theatre itself subsides into silence. The audience members have adjusted their coats, made themselves comfortable in the venerable theater’s famously hardbacked chairs. The chuckles over warnings to turn off beepers and cell phones have died away.
As the lights go up on stage, they shine on people in Victorian dress, milling about under open umbrellas. One of them steps forward and says:
“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
And there is no doubt whatever that this is, once again, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Because the old story begins exactly as it has always begun, and you can almost feel a sigh of familiarity from the audience. The woman in town from Tucson clutches her purse in rapt attention. The giggly girls are surprised into gasps when Marley and his chains appear out of Scrooge’s fireplace. And the audience, having seen Mrs. Fezziwig in debtor’s prison, is as chastened and touched as Scrooge himself at the intermission.
‘Tis the season. Probably no other work gets more of a theatrical workout this time of year than Charles Dickens’ venerable tale of the bah humbug man, Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and the fate of Tiny “God Bless us Everyone” Tim. Ford’s Theatre’s 19th staging of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is pulling them in, filling the seats at night and in matinees now through Dec. 31.
Critics sneer and complain every year, here and no doubt in other cities and towns, where some version of Dickens’ classic tale of redemption is a traditional part of the season. Highly respected theater companies like the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and the Woodman Theater in Chicago all put on their own version of the Dickens novel. Frank Langella is starring in a New York production.
Why? Because audiences love it and come see the show year after year.
Ford’s has staged “A Christmas Carol” since 1979. The present production is the conception of director David Bell, who revamped things in 1986. Mr. Bell’s version is also running in Atlanta.
For the people in the production, critics don’t matter. Other things do.
“What makes it me for is that audiences get into it, every year,” says Jim Beard, 54, a veteran Washington actor who has returned to the city after a stay in Europe. “That’s gratifying.”
Mr. Beard, a big man with a near-white beard, plays, among other parts, Mr. Fezziwig and the boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present.
“After one show, I was leaving the theater, and this little kid was with his parents and he pointed at me and he said, ‘Look, there’s Mr. Tiddlywinks.’ This show doesn’t get old. People get into it.”
Mr. Beard was in the show in 1985 playing Fezziwig when he was a familiar figure in Washington theater circles, especially at the old Folger Theatre, where he appeared in many Shakespeare productions, including an appearance as Bottom in “A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.”
Mr. Beard laughs about that. “I remember somebody saying once that you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Jim Beard’s Bottom.”
For a brief time in the 1980s, Mr. Beard, who was in the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division in Vietnam, formed a theater company called “The Troopers,” composed of Vietnam veterans and their families. From 1996 to 1999, Mr. Beard lived in Paris with his wife Angela, a scientist working under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency. There he performed as a volunteer Papa Noel for homeless shelters.
Now Mr. Beard is back.
“Oh, you get comments from some actors, like ‘Oh, you’re doing that’,” he says. “But that’s not common. The Ghost, Mr. Fezziwig, they’re great parts. You can pour yourself into them. The people in this show, they believe in what they’re doing, so that’s what matters. And the audiences respond. Plus, it’s like a reunion. I’m back with Steve and John.”
John is John Leslie Wolfe, who reprises his role as Marley, in chains and out, and Steve is Steven Crossley, an English actor from Portsmouth who has returned to take on the role of Scrooge once again. Mr. Crossley, Mr. Beard and Mr. Wolfe appeared in the 1987 production, which marked a return of “A Christmas Carol” to Ford’s after a two-year hiatus.
“I think it’s safe to say that probably changed the direction of my career somewhat,” Mr. Crossley says. “I became quite interested in Dickens and his life and I thought up this one-man show which I still do, called ‘Dickens in America.’ He was a fascinating man. I felt some affinity. I was born only a short walk from his birthplace.”
He and therefore Scrooge have changed since the 1980s.
“I think I played him as being very, very angry back then,” he says. “Perhaps I was, too, I don’t know. But I’ve gotten older and wiser, I hope. I like to think that Scrooge has become a little more complicated now. He’s a man who’s rejected life, you see, everything is in the service of money. And he’s given a second chance. That’s why this story remains so popular with audiences it’s about redemption, you see, and that’s a very popular theme, especially here.”
Justin Pereira, 9, a fourth-grader in a program for the highly gifted at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Silver Spring, plays Tiny Tim. He has never appeared at Ford’s Theatre, but he’s no stranger to Dickens. A regular trouper, Justin has already appeared as Oliver Twist in the Musical Theater Center’s production of “Oliver!”
Dead on, he reprises the famous line for his interviewer: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
Actually, Justin had auditioned for two productions of “A Christmas Carol” this one at Ford’s, and a New York production at Madison Square Garden. He and his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Charles Pereira, were vacationing in Puerto Rico when they received the call telling him that he got the part.
“I love being here, being with all the people in the cast, and saying those lines,” he says. “I hadn’t seen any other productions or movies before, except the Muppet one with Kermit the Frog.”
Mary Jane Raleigh is the Ghost of Christmas Past this time around, shimmering in a nice way like the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz.” In 1995, she was Martha Cratchit, and also appeared in the production in 1997 and 1998.
Miss Raleigh is a stage veteran she toured with the third “Les Miserables” national tour, which stopped at the National Theatre, she was in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, she has performed at Disney world, Opryland and cruise ships and she has seen just about every movie version of the Dickens classic that exists.
“You know what it is about this show?” she says. “It’s the audiences. You know, there’s always a lot of kids about there, and when the audience is silent, well, then, you know they’re pulled in, you’ve got them, they’re entranced.”
Early in November, the company is rehearsing and the theater looks more like a site for an outing. Everyone is in civilian clothes and Mr. Crossley sits on stage in an overstuffed easy chair, surrounded by other members of the cast as if he were a favored British uncle. Timothy Gregory, who appeared in the show in 1992 as Young Scrooge, is now the director, and he’s clearing up details with stage manager Roy Meachum.
The children in the cast on this day act like children, restless, slouching, fidgeting, the boys, Justin and his Tiny Tim understudy 7-year-old Nicholas Cable racing through the theater during a lull.
Hang around for a while and that world starts to look familiar: the deep brown edifice of the Scrooge and Marley counting house, the fireplace from which the chalky, ashen, be-chained Marley emerges, Scrooge’s bed, his work desk, the books in their case, the chair where Bob Cratchit works, Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas table, full of shined-up fruit.
“What we did, we finally glued all of that together so that it ‘s one big prop,” says Tom Berra, the technical director at Ford’s Theatre, of the table with the fruit. “So it just comes out all in one piece.”
Mr. Berra, 58, still enjoys his work, even after all these years.
“I’ve done every one of these, every year, except for the two years when there wasn’t one,” he says. “It still works, never fails, doesn’t matter what anybody says.”
In a way, the physical parts of Ford’s Theatre, the wings on either side, the old wooden walkway way up high (“It’s the only wooden one still around,” Mr. Berra says), the curtains, the sturdy Scrooge bed, the prop stand, the fog machines, the solid wood desk that looks like an antique and probably is these are all part of Mr. Berra’s kingdom. He’s in charge of the stuff and the stage, something of a family tradition. His younger brother Mickey Berra was for years master of the Kennedy Center Opera House, and one of his sons is a working stagehand.
The backstage of Ford’s is a crowded place; even restored, it’s probably not a lot more spacious than in Lincoln’s day. Costumers and dressers get winded running down clothes from the second floor to the changing spots. The stage manager calls the show from the back of theater on the third floor, where the lighting cues are also given. A table is set to one side full of small props a smoking pipe, eyeglasses, notebook, pens, purses, gloves and the like, everything in a place where actors or assistants can find it instantly.
“Here’s the fog machine on this side, fog machine in the middle, fog machine on the right,” Mr. Berra says. “Here’s the feast. Here’s Tiny Tim’s little crutch. I whittled that down myself a long time ago.”
Backstage is dark and crowded, full of ropes and pulleys and sandbags and stagehands and little cubbyholes, a small alcove where Scrooge’s bed is tucked away. It’s an old theater, an old play, an old story and old props. But the stuff is also sturdy, the solid wood, heavy books Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is in the stage bookcase or at least one volume of it. The stage, the story and the show are resistant to use, time, and critics; they’re the stuff of legend.
On stage, Scrooge is grumbling.
“Christmas is humbug,” Scrooge says.
Not at Ford’s Theatre.
WHAT: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”
WHERE: Ford’s‘s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Dec. 31.
INFORMATION: 202/348-4833 or 703/218-6500.