Dickens meets Delano in “Christmas Carol 1941”
“Christmas Carol 1941,” it seems, defies categorization. Is it a classic? Not exactly; its premiere was just weeks ago. Is it modern? Well, no, as it’s set in the 40s. Is it a war play? Somewhat. A morals play? Kind of. Is it overly dramatic, traumatic, fantastic? Not really.
If there’s any phrase that describes the show, it’s this: worth watching.
The play, a product of the Arena Stage, opens with a conversation. On one side, we have Elijah Strube, a selfish old miser who wouldn’t donate his bathwater to put out a house fire. Strube effectively mirrors Scrooge from the original Christmas Carol, penned by Dickens some 164 years ago.
What distinguishes this play from its predecessor is Henry Schroen, the person Strube happens to be yelling at, and his family. Playwright James Magruder got the inspiration for “Christmas Carol 1941” from his grandparents, Henry and Margarette Schroen, whose real-life personas and history come to light in scenes such as this one. Their inclusion in the play, along with authentic speeches, gives the show credibility. This isn’t just a halfhearted remake of a holiday classic; it’s a look at an earlier generation’s struggles and hopes, set in a format that audiences can connect to.
The setting and characters are based around the Schroen family, but the plot structure is essentially the same as the original’s. Once we learn that Strube is a greedy, greedy man, one who’s exploiting the needs of the American army for his own good, we figure that a little poetic justice is in order. One sleepless night, Strube meets three spirits (or statues, in this case) who show him his past, present and imminent future, leaving him worried about his fate. If you’ve seen Dickens’ play, none of this will come as a surprise, nor will the format seem all that fresh.
Where “Christmas Carol 1941” succeeds is in adapting the original to fit a new setting, stage and time. Recordings of President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Speeches,” 40s-based costume design and a USO show scene take the audience back to the war era. The play also has a sense of location. From references to the SE fish market to the use of city statues as spirits, we’re reminded that we’re in Washington—the city where the Schroen family grew up. Still, without much use of scenery or art, this effect comes across as spotty. With only a few adjustments, the play could have been tweaked to fit New York or Chicago.
The play was designed specifically for the quirks of the Finchlander Stage, and it shows. Eschewing a traditional format for a bowl-like design, the theater has seats on all four sides of the stage, creating an intimate environment where the furthest seats are only 8 rows back. It’s impossible for the actors to face all of the audience at once; Strube’s back was turned to much of the crowd for the first 10 minutes. This blemish aside, the stage is truly used to its full potential. The set is extremely versatile, going from a dining room to a USO show to a fish market with only minor adjustments. The use of projection technology, combined with an elevator that sends Strube and the spirits flying above Washington, is also notable.
Acting-wise, there were few flaws to speak of, except that some actors went underused. As Strube, James Gale gives a powerful performance—perhaps overpowering, seeing as he’s omnipresent in the show. The Schroen family has its moments, but they’re crammed in between Strube-dominated scenes. Magruder may have been inspired by his grandparents to write the play, but he doesn’t give them enough time—or lines—to tell all of their story. Additionally, considering the diversity of the audience, it was disappointing to see only white actors onstage.
Like any play, “Christmas Carol 1941” has its faults. There’s not enough sense of place, and some actors don’t get the stage time they deserve. This isn’t the type of production that will inspire those unfamiliar with plays to get off the couch and into the audience. For fans of theater, though, this show is a great way to spend 2 hours and 25 minutes. It’s a treat to see Dickens’ original play refreshed with the Schroen family’s actual experiences, and the set design is top-notch. It’s not perfect, but the show has plenty to offer theatergoers looking for a little holiday spirit.