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When Ebenezer Scrooge awakens from his dark Christmas night to a brighter morning full of possibility, audiences are reminded that it’s never too late for second chances. The reason A Christmas Carol has been a staple at the Alliance Theatre for 32 years is because it offers people an annual opportunity to reflect and renew, said David H. Bell, whose new adaptation of the Dickens classic for the Atlanta company is amid preview performances.

“The gift of the show, and it really is a gift, is that we are told that no matter where we are in our journey, we have the ability to wake up, to change, to love, to reach out and get the things we’ve always needed,” he said.

The Alliance Theater’s new production of “A Christmas Carol” is the sixth adaptation of the Dickens classic by David H. Bell.

There is always the potential to change.

This season’s production, running through December 24, reflects that potential. It is an entirely new endeavor, employing a new script, a new set, a new Scrooge and a new director.

Bell has written six versions of A Christmas Carol throughout his life, including the version staged at the Alliance for the last two decades, and he finds the newest approach exciting. 

“You have a dialogue with a piece of great literature and that dialogue can last a lifetime,” he said. “And you will notice different things at different times. That’s what I think makes that literature so enduring.”

When he was in his 30s, Bell was drawn toward Scrooge’s ambition. Now, he sees the character differently.

“The experience of being in the rehearsal hall with this script, it took on a different weight because I’m 72 years old now,” Bell said. “I’m very aware of those things that you lose over the course of a lifetime. In any kind of ideal universe, I would like to think there is a point to acquire again all of the things that I lost along the way — in terms of friendships, loves and people who’ve died — and for that to all be made whole again.” 

Bell, who in the 1990s was associate director to Kenny Leon at the Alliance, where he directed 20 plays, enjoyed collaborating with director Leora Morris as the new production took shape. Morris adapted and directed last year’s Alliance drive-in version of the play, A Christmas Carol: The Live Radio Play, at a Georgia State University parking lot in the Summerhill neighborhood.

“The director is amazing,” said Bell, now a Chicago resident and a Northwestern University professor of music theater. “The last round of rewrites was really influenced by her. We talked for hours and evolved these concepts together. At every step, she’s made the show a better one.”

The script takes a darker, more nuanced approach to Scrooge’s psychology than the previous Alliance production.

“We were more interested in the personal cost to Scrooge and how he lost his societal link to the world through losing his family, some by death, some by his choice,” Bell said. “That becomes the arc of this exploration, which is all in the confines of the original Charles Dickens story, but there’s something about the lens that seems more appropriate now than the one I wrote years ago.”

Scrooge’s righteousness comes from the Victorian mindset that avarice was less of a sin than sloth. The notion of the time enforced capitalism and greed as morally upright.

“It’s not only a rigidity in society, it’s a feeling that society functions for the good, that there’s a reason for everything and that, if you play by the rules, then you succeed,” he said. “And if you don’t succeed, clearly you didn’t play by some of the rules. Of course, we know now that a lot of the rules of capitalism are horrible. They rely on exploitation. They rely on greed.”

Scrooge doesn’t acknowledge his own privilege until he sees how Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and his nephew Fred live with different values and make different choices.

“Those are the things that fascinate me,” Bell said. “As one takes a journey in life, those people who make exits along the way and why they make exits. And those people that you never see again and the ones who become enduring friends. Those families that you find as opposed to the families that you’re born into. Those are the things that, if you’re reconstructing the value of a life, are interesting to me.”

Christopher L. Morgan (from left), Andrew Benator, Eugene H. Russell IV, Kevin Qian and Clare Latham surround the Cratchit dinner table in “A Christmas Carol.”

Atlanta actor Andrew Benator, who has portrayed Jacob Marley in the play five times at the Alliance, will star as Scrooge for the first time this season.

“He’s very different from any of the other Scrooges, and I love everything he does,” Bell said. “He’s a little more contemplative. He brings nuance into the production in places where you don’t usually see nuance. He’s really brilliant. I can’t wait for people to see it.”

Bell believes the new telling will also have a different effect upon audiences who have weathered the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic for nearly two years. People have different priorities now, he said.

“There’s something about an audience listening to this story about Scrooge,” Bell said. “The character realizes that there must be more to life than the work that he does, in this moment of consciousness, this night of reckoning. The moment we surrender trying to control that thing that will never be controlled, then we can find happiness and values that are worth constructing a life around.”

Bell said that longtime audiences will find new surprises in this take, including a scene that unlocks Scrooge’s past in a new way. While writing, he found that Dickens’ characters have a mind of their own.

“The characters are incredibly enduring, and they don’t always to do what you think they would,” the writer said. “They become unpredictable. Allowing them to be unpredictable and not allowing the original story to dictate everything about the course of the journey, it became a wonderful dialogue for me with the nature of the characters Dickens created. They are vivid.”

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Benjamin Carr is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His first novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

 

 

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