Charles Dickens, played by his great-great-grandson, presents a satisfying exploration of faith and art

Paula Keller

Paula Keller

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” That’s the opening sentence of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, a man who put a lot of thought into his opening lines, as he tells us in the engaging play To Begin With.

Historic Wesley Center

It’s not actually him, of course, but it’s about as close as you can get. The writer is played by his great-great-grandson Gerald Charles Dickens, an actor who’s made a career out of channeling his ancestor. Unsurprisingly, he does a pretty convincing job of it.

The one-man show written and directed by Jeffrey Hatcher premiered in 2015 at the Music Box Theatre. Now it’s back for a reprise run, this time at the Historic Wesley Center, the former Wesley United Methodist Church near the Minneapolis Convention Center. Since last year, the 1891 building has been run as a nonprofit that leases the space to church groups and others, in this case the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

The stunning sanctuary is an apt home for the staging of this complex but accessible play about faith and art. At the show’s opening, Dickens strides down the aisle and steps onto Nayna Ramey’s cozy set, representing the study of a summer home the writer rented on the Isle of Wight.

Acting as though it’s the most natural thing in the world to find dozens of people waiting for him to hold forth in a series of waistcoats (minor costume changes delineate the play’s four scenes), Dickens explains his dilemma. Inspired by the negative example of a seemingly godless neighbor boy, the legendary storyteller wants to render the Gospels more accessible for the benefit of his own children.

That effort was to become The Life of Our Lord, a book written by Dickens to privately read to his family; it wasn’t published until 1934, after the last of his children had died. In Hatcher’s play, Dickens wrestles with the question of just how intense to make the story. Should there be a terrifying crucifixion? Should the account include gory details like the slaughter of babies?

The heart of To Begin With is Dickens’ abbreviated, animated account of the life of Jesus. Dickens was famed as a gripping reader of his own work, and his descendent makes a good case that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree — even if, at times, he gets a little overripe. Characters like the louche Herod and the hypocritical Pharisees turn into Dickensian villains, while Christ lives by his wits.

If this portrait of Dickens as a man is somewhat idealized — a doting father, a devoted husband who berates himself for being platonically charmed by a local actress — Hatcher’s script does enough heavy lifting elsewhere. By the end, it’s touched on themes of guilt and redemption, of art and faith, and of the meaning of Christianity in the Romantic era. For its target audience (you know who you are), To Begin With delivers.

To Begin With
Historic Wesley Center
101 E. Grant St., Minneapolis
612-455-9501; through April 15