By Philip Pearce
DIRECTOR Cindy Womack and a group called Epiphany Players have created an engaging version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church in Marina.
Sub-titled “Scrooge and Marley,” the show is a benefit for the inter-denominational congregation’s outreach ministry. Staged simply but effectively in the church sanctuary, the play offers an interesting new slant on a time-honored Christmas favorite.
As the subtitle suggests, Israel Horovitz’ (pictured) adaptation changes what is usually a Scrooge-centered holiday attraction into a duet between the familiar Yuletide curmudgeon and his deceased counting house partner Jacob Marley. As of old, the sleepy Scrooge is startled by a clanking of chains in his bedroom that heralds the appearance of the ghostly Marley. Himself doomed by his lifelong avarice to a monotonous afterlife of holiday haunting, Marley lays it on the line: Scrooge is headed for the same sad fate if he doesn’t take on a new attitude of love and generosity.
Patrick McEvoy is in no way the ranting clown or comic book skinflint we’ve seen in many a more light-hearted stage or screen performance. His Scrooge is a dark-coated, lurching, one-track maelstrom of boiling rage. You don’t for a second doubt the terror he strikes in the heart of everyone he meets.
But with Marley’s visit, he will, like Alistair Sim, George C. Scott or Albert Finney, spend a scary Christmas weekend learning how he has failed as a human being and how he can change. Having announced all that, Marley, in most versions, disappears, leaving his friend’s transformation to those three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. That won’t do for Horovitz. Marley stays for the evening, keeps returning to point out Scrooge’s challenges and plight, to check on the ghosts’ progress and to offer pieces of sharp Dickensian comment and philosophy that usually get dropped from more action-centered adaptations.
Ron Cohen, whom we don’t see half enough of on the stage these days, is a magnificent Marley, white faced and scary as you please. But whereas, even in the book, Marley is a sepulchral nag who says his piece and then clears out, author and actor here combine to create a man who has gained a lot of human wisdom and compassion in his years spent floating around in the spirit world and wants to share it with his audience. Cohen still clanks his chains with appropriate menace and proves he can set up a spine-chilling howl when required. But these are sly theatrical effects to be turned on when Scrooge needs to be jolted out of his stubborn lethargy and roused to action. The pace and interplay of these two principal egos is fun to watch.
Womack has wisely cast some of the key roles with well-known local actors like McEvoy and Cohen, Peter Eberhardt as a nasty East London rag and bone merchant and Phil Livernois in a succession of effectively blustering character roles. If I haven’t misread my program, Cody Moore plays all three of the visiting spirits, the most memorable of them a weird and ditsy ghost of Christmas past dressed like a frosty white Christmas tree angel and speaking in a soft, suggestive purr that explodes unexpectedly into guttural shouts. Spooky!
The old guard actors are joined by a company of less experienced local cast members who meet the challenge well and show an energy and conviction that reflect adroit direction and an ability to learn from more seasoned performers. Most of them take on dual or triple roles. Jonah Spitler and Laurel Bowen do well by two pairs of young lovers. They start the evening as Scrooge’s exuberant nephew Fred and his wife, then move into a sad flashback of young Scrooge (Spitler again) already so obsessed with money-grubbing that Bowen, as his fiancée Belle, breaks their engagement. Then there’s Linda Felice busily handling four characters, notably a raucous and drunken cockney charwoman.
It’s impossible to list everyone in the big cast, but Adam Kinkade has a direct honesty that works well for Bob Cratchet, but possibly makes him a less-believable merry-making Mr. Fezziwig. Epiphany sanctuary’s relatively small playing space and limited lighting restrict scenes of group celebration like the Fezziwig dance. A willing cast and Ron Cohen’s Greek chorus help counteract the loss by focusing attention away from holiday color and activity and onto character relationships. As Kinkade’s spirited blonde wife, Jessica Perlman effectively abets him in supervising a table full of Cratchet children—all of whom look highly attractive thanks to the excellent costuming of Marjory Lowry—Yvonne Bowen, Debbie Thomas and Philomena Ojeda.
The play continues at 7:30 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this week. The church is located at 425 Carmel Avenue, corner of California, in Marina. Your ticket and concessions money goes to the church’s work in feeding the hungry and homeless and ministering to CSUMB students. Epiphany is even offering Wednesday night Advent studies on Biblical implications of Dickens’ classic.
A final round of applause for tiny and talented Donna Gambrell-Ojeda, in the important role of Tiny Tim. She is as clear and convincing when she sings “Silent Night” as she is in her final Christmas blessing on us (every one) as we leave Epiphany and head for home.