‘A Christmas Carol’ on repeat: Beloved holiday tale returns to thrill

‘A Christmas Carol’ on repeat: Beloved holiday tale returns to thrill

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Justine “Icy” Moral may have recently marked her 300th performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Ford’s Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” but the actor still finds herself walking on air at every performance — literally and figuratively.

When Moral’s spectral character makes her entrance, soaring above the stage to haunt Craig Wallace’s Ebenezer Scrooge, a beam of light illuminates the audience and puts the theatergoers’ wonder on full display.

“It’s just a special moment when you see the reactions,” Moral says. “The light does flash onto the little faces of kids, and you can just see them so excited to see someone up in the air. That never gets old.”

When Ford’s Theatre launched this season’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” which runs through Dec. 31, it marked the 20th consecutive year that the company has, in some capacity, staged playwright Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella. For both audiences and returning actors — such as Moral, who joined the show in 2017, and Wallace, who took over as Scrooge in 2016 — coming together for Dickens’s seminal tale of reflection and redemption is as much a fixture of the holiday season as candy canes and Christmas trees.

“We’re like rock stars at the end of the show,” Wallace says. “That’s got to be about [the audience’s] gratitude, that they can come back to this piece that they love so much.”

Ford’s staged earlier iterations of “A Christmas Carol” from 1979 to 1984 and from 1987 to 2002 before switching to Wilson’s adaptation in 2004. After director Matt August’s take on the material ran for five years, Ford’s gave the reins to Michael Baron for a new staging of Wilson’s play in 2009.

Baron’s production, which this year was remounted by resident director José Carrasquillo, leans into the tale’s gothic trappings with elaborate stagecraft and spooky sound design. Lee Savage’s set, meanwhile, lends grandiosity to the Victorian London period piece by framing the show with four tiers of vast iron arches.

“It’s important for me that it’s ‘A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,’” Wilson says. “The script and the production at Ford’s really embrace that full title and the full sense of that.”

Wilson initially wrote his adaptation for Houston’s Alley Theatre in 1990, as a budding theater maker fresh out of the University of North Carolina. Even then, Wilson fixated on the thematic potency of dreaming about one’s own death, as the miserly Scrooge does when he’s haunted by three ghosts in the early morning hours on Christmas. But after Wilson turned 59 earlier this year, making him older than Dickens ever was, he says he faced newfound reflections on mortality. The isolating and harrowing experience of living through a pandemic, he adds, dredged up deep-seated feelings of bitterness.

With that in mind, Wilson poses one reason “A Christmas Carol” remains so timeless: “Each and every one of us has Scrooge within us.”

“We do,” the playwright continues. “And the thing is, we can nurture it, we can beat it, we can stoke it, we can rev it up, and we can unleash it on people if that’s what we want to do and how we want to go through life. I think we have to make a point of not scolding him, or each other.”

Although the pandemic largely put in-person theater on pause, “A Christmas Carol” found a way to endure at Ford’s — first as a radio play in 2020, when Wilson rewrote his script for the airwaves, and then through an abridged staging a year later. “It’s a real testament to this particular iteration,” Wallace says, “that even when it looked like it couldn’t happen, we created a bridge for it to happen.”

While myriad performers return to “A Christmas Carol” every holiday season, there always is turnover as certain cast members move on and child actors age out of their roles. But the newcomers — this year including D.C. theater staple Kimberly Gilbert as the Ghost of Christmas Present — naturally freshen the production with their own interpretations and ideas.

“Because no two actors will ever do a moment the same way, it’s always really wonderful when you hear lines for the first time or discover moments onstage,” says Carrasquillo, the resident director. “We try to capture as many of those moments as we can to keep the production exciting and relevant.”

In the spirit of Scrooge’s journey toward philanthropy, Ford’s has used “A Christmas Carol” to raise money for charity each of the past 14 years. (This year’s selected charity is Hope and a Home, which serves low-income families with children in D.C.). As actors connect with audiences after the show and collect donations, they’re meeting more and more theatergoers who saw “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s as children and are returning with their own kids to pass down the tradition.

“The fact that people return year after year and look for this story and have shared it with their family is really amazing,” Moral says. “It really does feel like you’re creating a memory for them.”

A Christmas Carol

Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.

Dates: Through Dec. 31.

Prices: $28-$134.

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