The Goodman Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol" does not shy away from the dark, the frightening, and all those things we prefer not to think about.
Indeed, this production uses stage wizardry to solidly confront us with many of the biggest fear factors in human life--poverty, sickness, loss, regrets and death.
Because of that, Ebenezer Scrooge's gradual emergence from the darkness into the light takes on a magnificent feeling of triumph. It's a fully cathartic experience.
This is the show's 35th year, and I've been seeing it, on a pretty regular basis, for about 13 years. Every time, it pulls me into its Dickensian world with the stellar quality of its acting, directing that brings out nuances of humor and grimness, and fine production values--richly costumed party scenes, flying ghosts, enduring Elizabethan carols, an otherworldly sky-- that make my eyes open wider with wonder. And every year my family and I emerge on an emotional high, imbued with the Christmas spirit as we spill out onto Dearborn Street with the rest of the merry crowd.
Of course, the actor playing Scrooge carries the dramatic weight of the show, and I just wanted to hug Larry Yando's Scrooge--at the end, anyway. His multi-layered portrayal of the character is rich with human imperfections and vanities. He lets us see the gradual transformation of the curmudgeon into a man who can let a newly empathetic soul emerge.
But first, he establishes the dark side. When townspeople solicit charitable donations for the poor as Christmas approaches, Yando hauls out the full arsenal of irascibility.
"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
As the ghosts come calling and shake Scrooge out of his habitual unforgiveness, Yando's character grows wistful, reflective and gradually compassionate.
One of the delights of this production is its humor--from Yando's dead-panned one liners to Ron Rains' playfulness as Bob Cratchit horsing around with his kids.
And as the show gets to Christmas morning, Yando cranks up the emotional payoff. I was laughing while I had tears rolling down my cheeks, and I don't think I was the only one in the audience.
We're treated to uniformly strong performances across the entire cast, from the four ghosts to the Cratchit family, Fezziwig's crew, nephew Fred and his friends and the lively street vendors of London.
Steve Scott's direction has drawn them all out and has them working together as a top-notch ensemble, gently making Dickens' points about the crushing weight faced by both the poor and the hard-hearted--and the unexpected ways love and compassion can transform them.
This story has endured from the century before last for a reason. It's about summoning up all your courage to choose love instead of fear. That speaks right to the heart of Christmas.
"A Christmas Carol" runs through Dec. 29 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. See more information. Shows run Tuesdays through Sundays except Dec. 17 and 25. Ticket prices are $25-$82. On Dec. 14, Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen appears in a walk-on role with a young Make-a-Wish recipient in a benefit performance.