Home #Hwoodtimes A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Ahmanson Refreshes and Removes the Bah Humbug...

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Ahmanson Refreshes and Removes the Bah Humbug of COVID-19

The Center Theatre Group in downtown Los Angeles offers a dynamic return with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge: Lit by lanterns that illuminate the once gloomy souls of a refreshed audience.

By John Lavitt

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/5/21 – After a year of darkened theatres and grumpy quarantines, there is an argument to be made that we have all become a version of Scrooge. Faced with more potential difficulties and dangerous variants, it is not surprising that the worst aspects of many of our personalities have risen to the surface. Given such a challenge, director Thomas Caruso delivers a powerful message at the Ahmanson Theatre of the Center Theatre Group in downtown Los Angeles.

Working with a script adapted by Jack Thorne and an innovative production initially conceived and directed by Matthew Warchus, the talented director mines energy and passion from his inspired cast. Playing from November 30, 2021, until January 1, 2022, the Old Vic Production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a galvanizing triumph that brings forth parts of our COVID-19-throttled humanity that feel long buried. We see glimmers of the light within ourselves from behind the grumpiness, reflected by hundreds of lanterns hanging from the theatre’s ceiling.

First, reminding us more of his creepy performance from Get Out than his Emmy-nominated run on The West Wing, Bradley Whitford lives up to the tradition of the many great actors that have played Ebenezer Scrooge. From Jim Carrey, Albert Finney, and Basil Rathbone to Bill Murray, George C. Scott, and Ralph Richardson, the lead role in Charles Dickens’ masterful story has been taken on by the best actors of successive generations. As he journeys through his past, present, and future with mystical spirits, Whitford helps us to understand what the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kate Burton) calls “the bricks that built you.”

However, he is also helped by a dynamic array of secondary players that form a chorus of voices as if they traveled even farther in history from the ancient traditions of Greek tragedy. A Greek chorus is a homogeneous, non-individualized group of supporting cast members who watch the play with the audience. Unlike the audience’s position, they know much that lies behind the scenes of the story being told. Hence, the chorus comments on the hubris and fated misery of the storyline with a collective voice. In A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the chorus highlights the tragic nature of Scrooge’s shattered soul, mirrored by two heaps of timeworn oil lamps, some still barely working but most clearly broken, piled in a lantern graveyard at the back of the stage.

L-R: Chris Hoch and Bradley Whitford in “A Christmas Carol” playing at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre November 30, 2021, to January 1, 2022.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Indeed, we must ask ourselves what all those lanterns represent. When the spirits begin to appear later in the first act after Scrooge’s confrontation with his dead partner Jacob Marley (an unforgiving Chris Hoch who later plays Scrooge’s brutal father), the lanterns that appear with them are bigger and brighter. Sitting next to me, my Lady in Red thought that they might be angels. In Dickens, the true nature of the spirits is never defined, and they might not be ghosts but some form of heavenly manifestation. Such an expression of otherworldliness could be the reason behind the larger lanterns and the brighter lights. After all, could not each lamp, both hanging from the heavens and piled up in the spiritual junkyard or graveyard or whatever metaphor we choose, also represent souls, both alive and abandoned?

As the story progresses into the past, Scrooge learns his lessons. He does not seem to need the help of the chorus, although he hears the echoes of their condemnations. Like Scrooge, in the depth of our isolation during the lengthy quarantines, did not we look back and relish in old memories, recalling our youth and the promise of what could have been? Did we not sink into bitterness at times when faced with the throttling pain of intergenerational trauma?

Bringing an old story into a present context, the creators bring out the inherent trauma at the heart of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Scrooge claims that complacency is no man’s friend, and the suffering masses deserve their fates in the workhouses and the prisons. If they are not willing to scratch and fight their way up the ladder of success like he did, pinching every penny and turning his back on warmth and love, then they deserve their sordid fates.

But there is a reason for this cruelty. As Scrooge beholds the trauma of his past, we gain insight into his father’s violence that feels new to the storyline. Punished for his father’s failures, Scrooge is a victim of intergenerational family trauma where success became a weapon used against a loving son. Later, the once loving son, now older and embittered, will use the same weapon against his father. No matter who is the abuser and who is the abused, the abuse continues across the generations.

L-R: Kate Burton, Chris Hoch, and Bradley Whitford in “A Christmas Carol” playing at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre November 30, 2021, to January 1, 2022.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

There are many more innovative aspects to this powerful production, and many cannot be mentioned because they would act as spoilers. We can mention the Bridgerton feel of the production and how the race and ethnic origin of the actors do not prevent them from playing traditionally Caucasian roles. Thus, our modernity influences old England, bringing forth an air of equality and opportunity that proves refreshing. Moreover, although specific details must be avoided, women play a more significant role in the storyline. In truth, a kind of feminine energy and presence forms the conscience of the play.

From the perspective of Scrooge’s redemption, however, the critical moment is the old man’s connection to his distant past. The first hint of Scrooge’s almost mournful reckoning with what has been lost is when he beholds his younger self at boarding school. The Young Ebenezer (Harry Thornton) represents a delightful picture of innocence and unrestrained joy. As Scrooge watches his more youthful incarnation playing games, then interacting with his beloved sister Little Fan (Glory Yepassis-Zembrou), tears come to his eyes. He desperately wants to interact with the past. When asked why he desires such a moment, Scrooge tells the Glost of Christmas Past, “Because I do not want him to be me.”

L-R: Bradley Whitford, Harry Thornton, and Glory Yepassis-Zembrou in “A Christmas Carol” playing at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre November 30, 2021, to January 1, 2022.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

“Because I do not want him to be me.” It is a message that drives deep into the souls of the audience. Like Scrooge, I did not wish to become the man I became during the worst moments of the COVID-19 pandemic. I did not want to sink into a dark pessimism that tossed aside the wonders and the beauty of hope for a better future. I did not wish to be the man that I became, even briefly, during those long quarantine days and nights.

For a moment, Bah Humbug became not only the cant of Scrooge at the beginning of this magical tale. I believe it spread much farther. If I may be so bold, I feel like a form of Scrooge arose within many of us, even though we were far from the tragic front lines of the crisis. However, like Scrooge, we can be forgiven for our missteps if we embrace the present. Here, we can cherish the wonders of what the past can teach us and what the future holds. As the cast sings forth at the end of the performance of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Ahmanson Theatre, the lyrics of the Andrea Bocelli song stands as a powerful reminder of where our paths must lead:

One candle’s light dispels the night

Now our eyes can see

Burning brighter than the sun

God bless us, everyone 

The miracle has just begun
God bless us, everyone

Photographs by Joan Marcus for the Center Theater Group and with their permission