This Christmas season, as is customary, many area stages are presenting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What is perhaps unusual is that many productions this year are bringing the location and time period closer to home. Baltimore’s Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, for instance, is placing Dickens’ tale of the reformation of miser Ebenezer Scrooge through the intercession of his ghostly visitors in Victorian Baltimore. Providence Players in Falls Church are staging the Dickens novella of Christmas in St. Louis, Missouri, during the era of the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. We recently had the pleasure of travelling to enjoy A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre, located at 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway in South Chesterfield, Virginia, just beyond Richmond.
This is an all-day outing from our region, but a multi-faceted and worthwhile one. The theatre is an historical grist mill which dates to 1663, centuries before Dickens! While this is a dinner theatre, it is unusual for dinner theatres in that it boasts the restaurant on the ground floor and a theatre on the upper floor as opposed to everything in the same auditorium. The excellent meal consisted of food such as salmon cakes and pork as main courses, corn bread, and (a nod to the holidays) mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The pumpkin cheesecake and apple crisps as dessert were particularly delightful. All is served by friendly waiters and waitresses as vintage Christmas records of the Andrews Sisters, Guy Lombardo, and Patti Page play in the background, preparing one for the 1940’s milieu which greets the guest as he enters the theatre upstairs.
A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol by Walton Jones, David Wohl, and Faye Greenberg (and, we would argue, Charles Dickens!) is actually a sequel to another play, The 1940’s Radio Hour by Walton Jones. This first production mixed a 1940’s variety show in New York City with back stories of the lives and a bit of pathos involving the performers. In this sequel, the 1940’s radio show crew has now experienced a downturn in its success and is broadcasting on a lone station in Newark, New Jersey, in a studio where even the flushing of the toilet in the next room can be heard and with a large Shriners party at the Hotel Aberdeen making very audible noise. Throughout it all, they trudge on led by exuberant radio personality Clifton Feddington (Mike White) with their “First Annual Production” of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring washed-up stage and film actor William St. Claire (Swift Creek Mill actor Bill Blair) making his debut on radio as Ebenezer Scrooge. He is so new to radio that he imagines the radio audience can see him. He thus puts on and changes costumes for the part – a helpful aid for the audience in envisioning William St. Claire/Bill Blair as Scrooge in different parts of the story.
A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol is a play-within-a-play, and it is brought out that this supposed 1943 Christmas Carol broadcast is the one-hundred-year anniversary of A Christmas Carol, published by Dickens in 1843. The production is thus a celebration of two Christmases past – one from the 1840’s and one from the 1940’s. The relationships of the cast and crew at station WOV in wartime USA provide a bitter-sweet narrative of potential danger as sound-effects man “Buzz” Crenshaw (Gordon Graham) is about to leave for wartime military service. Meanwhile, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is performed from beginning to end, though with humor, as when actor John Mincks as “Jackie” Sparks represents the handicapped Tiny Tim by interspersing coughs in his dialogue – how else to show illness on radio, never mind that Tiny Tim is lame and not consumptive! The show appeals to imagination via sound effects as well as talented actress Claire Gates as Sally Simpson, who represents through a comic change of voices every female member of the Bob Cratchit family, down to the baby! Finally, the show demonstrates the improvisation which was necessary to live radio, as when Scrooge persona William St. Claire appears to have a nervous breakdown, brought on by the stress of his son serving on the warfront. The WOV actors, led by P.J. Llewellyn as radio star Fritz Canigliaro, switch effortlessly from A Christmas Carol to a Guy Noir-style private-eye mystery in search of the kidnapped baby of aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Other than an outstanding cast and a novel idea, A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol has some very special moments which make this production different from most plays. The audience, for instance, joins the action as it takes on the role of the studio audience (“Respond, please, to laugh and applaud signs!”). Audience members also receive in the middle of the performance a retro-style program for the radio version of a Christmas Carol being presented in the show, with fictional biographies for the radio actors and retro images (such as a vintage-art Santa with a sign “Don’t call long distance this Christmas – war needs the wires that you used to use for Christmas calls”).
It is a show for all ages, though some age groups might prefer it as opposed to others. Those more than sixty years of age appreciated the nostalgia, and laughed knowingly at recreations of Lucky Strike cigarette commercials claiming “most doctors smoke Luckies” and inviting weight-conscious ladies to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet this Christmas.” Children and young people in the audience were fascinated by the radio studio creation of sound effects using common objects to emulate creaking doors, wind, footsteps, and ghostly sounds. It was middle-aged members of the audience who may not have related as well, perhaps possessing neither in full the imagination and wonder of children nor the nostalgic memories of those who grew up in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s.
A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol is warmly recommended as a pleasant holiday excursion for enjoyable dining and an opportunity to experience Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in an unusual way, combining as it does comedy, reading, stage acting, and celebrations of two Christmases past. The production at Swift Creek Mill Theatre runs through January 5.