DALLAS — It turns out that the big surprise in Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol at the Wyly Theatre isn’t the casting of a woman as Scrooge, but the way Sally Nystuen Vahle’s performance of a miserly boss proves that Charles Dickens has created a universal role not specific to gender.
Vahle’s thin-lipped Ebenezer chills from the moment she appears centerstage of the factory she runs. The rectangular spot on which she stands rises hydraulically to a great height over the workers she oversees with chilly calculation. If she doesn’t bellow as loudly as Scrooges Past, she is as terrifying, if not more so, by the coldness with which she judges those physically and economically beneath her. Did someone drop from exhaustion? Leave him! She is paying for work, not for time spent in bringing a thirsty person water or giving him care.
All the other elements of artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s eloquent adaptation return, including the portrayal of Scrooge as a factory owner with many workers led by Bob Cratchit (Alex Organ). Director Steven Michael Walters, who added the concept of women playing both Scrooge and his late partner, Marley, finds fresh riffs in the familiar tale, reminding us that Dickens’ admonitions to care for people are not just aimed at men, but anyone in a position to make another’s life better. (Vahle, who teaches theater at the University of North Texas in Denton, is a familiar face to Dallas theater patrons.)
The narrative unfolds in story theater style, with multiple narrators setting up the scenes that unfold. Scrooge rebuffs her niece, Lucy (Gabrielle Reyes), when she comes to ask her aunt to Christmas dinner, and reluctantly gives her exhausted, battered workers the holiday off. That night, the ghost of Scrooge’s old partner, Marley (Lydia Mackay), appears and warns Scrooge of the horrible afterlife that awaits her if she doesn’t change her ways. Marley promises visitation by three ghosts, who turn out to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future.
Like the linguist in the movie Arrival, who discovers the answer to inner and outer peace is to live simultaneously in the past, present and future, the heart of Vahle’s Scrooge slowly and movingly melts, with occasional spasms of resistance.
The set, originally designed by Beowulf Boritt, is a marvel of gritty detail, with fiery furnaces that get softened by Jeff Croiter’s lighting when they visit the past. The homespun look of Jennifer Caprio’s flowing costumes are beautified by Jeremy Allen Dumont’s joyful choreography. The live instrumental performances and singing, directed by Vonda K. Bowling, fill the room with alternatingly bright and wistful melodies.
Among the most moving is the song that Vahle’s Scrooge sings at the end. The emotional journey of the lyrics, filled with pain, longing and hesitation at the start, and moving toward affirmation of the glory of life at the end, serve as a melodic microcosm of the show itself.
The unerring ensemble weaves a rich tapestry of emotion with Organ’s Cratchit as a man who is determined to be the best for his family under difficult circumstances, drawing tears that he himself won’t let fall.
Yet another surprise of this show is an added significance to the role played by Cratchit’s youngest son, the crippled Tiny Tim (a sweet Nina Ruby Gameros, who alternates in the role with Georgia Rose Bell). Tim is known for his gentle rejoinder of “God bless us every one.” But this time, there’s fresh meaning to the words. When the other Cratchits refuse to drink to Scrooge’s health because of how mean she has been to Bob, Tim speaks up for her.
It’s a deeply moving foreshadowing of the lesson Scrooge learns on her journey, that everyone is blessed, even if he or she doesn’t realize it yet.