'A Community Carol': Dickens of a story, updated and unrelentingly PC


The photo caption accompanying the review of "A Community Carol" in yesterday's Maryland Live contained incomplete information and incorrectly identified one of the performers. The play is a co-production by Arena Stage and Cornerstone Theater Company. The actor pictured with Al Freeman Jr., who plays Scrooge, was Henry Strozier, in the role of the Ghost of Jacob Marley.

The Sun regrets the errors.

When Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" 150 years ago, he didn't envision it as the treacly tale it has so often become in more than 200 adaptations for stage, screen, cartoons, ballet -- you name it.

Dickens saw his book as an instrument for social change, a way to encourage individuals to take responsibility for the less fortunate, particularly for children in need of food, health care and education.

With that in mind, the story would appear to be a natural for Cornerstone Theater Company, a California-based troupe with a reputation for adapting classic works to reflect modern-day problems. And there are definitely some hard-hitting touches to "A Community Carol," as the Dickens novel has been retitled in Cornerstone's co-production with Washington's Arena Stage.

This updated version -- directed by Bill Rauch and adapted by Alison Carey, Edward P. Jones, Laurence Maslon and Mr. Rauch -- is set in the Anacostia section of Washington. The Cratchits are a black family whose father is unemployed and whose mother works as a secretary at the loan office of Ebenezer Scrooge. Tiny Tim -- now called "T.T." -- is confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a stray bullet. The bullet also nicked his heart, and he needs another operation, but Scrooge won't give his hard-working secretary the health insurance necessary to pay for it.

You certainly can't fault the production for not being well-meaning -- or for not practicing what it preaches. One of the most impressive things about Cornerstone is that it utilizes the talents of the very people its plays are about. "A Community Carol" features professional actors working side by side with 20 community residents, whose Thespian abilities were discovered in a series of local acting workshops.

So why isn't "A Community Carol" a gut-wrenching as well as socially conscious theatrical experience? For one thing, it tries too hard -- and succeeds too well -- at being achingly politically correct. The guests at Scrooge's nephew's Christmas party wear red AIDS awareness ribbons; the script includes references to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah; and when the Ghost of Christmas Present instructs Scrooge to open some oversized gifts, they turn out to contain a nursing home patient, a battered woman and a prisoner; and on, and on, and on . . .

Nor is this the only difficulty. Scrooge is portrayed by stage and screen actor Al Freeman Jr., who from his first exclamation of "horsepuckey!" -- the term that replaces "bah humbug!" -- seems cuter than he is nasty. But then, too much of this production is cute instead of hard-edged.

Admittedly, sometimes the cuteness works, particularly when you consider that the show is aimed partly at children. Quick-changing Christopher Liam Moore, for instance, is an adorably puckish Ghost of Christmas Past, and Santa-garbed Jeffrey V. Thompson makes a jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. (He's a rapper -- get it?) But much of the cuteness feels extraneous -- the chorus of Washington "Potato Skins" football players, the chorus of fast-food workers carrying illuminated hamburger containers, the chorus of, well, you get the idea.

"A Community Carol" is Cornerstone's first co-venture with a regional theater, and while the acting level is understandly variable, there are some impressive amateur performances -- particularly Toni White-Richardson's touching portrayal of Mrs. Cratchit.

But variability isn't the problem. At the risk of sounding Scrooge-like, the problem is that treacly overabundance of political correctness. This production exudes so much of it, it sacrifices dramatic tension.

"A Community Carol"

Where: Arena Stage, Sixth and Maine Ave. S.W., Washington

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; selected matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays at noon; through Jan. 2

Tickets: $20-$39

Call: (202) 488-3300

** 1/2

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