Guthrie's 'A Christmas Carol' is a dark and reflective take in line with the times

'A Christmas Carol'

'A Christmas Carol' Dan Norman

One hundred seventy-five years years after the publication of Charles Dickens' novella, A Christmas Carol continues to exert a perpetual fascination, spurring countless annual re-readings and adaptations around the world.

A Christmas Carol

Guthrie Theater

Why? It contains multitudes. It's a ghost story, and it's a comedy. It's a period piece, it's a family drama, it's a call for social responsibility, and of course it's a redemption narrative.

Over the nearly four and a half decades of the Guthrie Theater's annual production, those various elements have waxed and waned. Often, the show's comic elements have predominated — a trend that hit its peak, or nadir, when the Fezziwigs' roasted bird literally leaped up off the platter and chased characters around the stage, giving Twin Cities theater its own version of "jumped the shark."

The laughs are much more subdued in this year's production. In her second year directing, Lauren Keating has firmly seized the story's core themes of regret, self-hatred, and, ultimately, hope. With the courage to squarely face the profound sadness at the core of a story that climaxes with a man watching his own funeral, this year's Christmas Carol is the Guthrie's best in at least a decade.

It marks quite a transformation, not just for Ebenezer Scrooge but for Crispin Whittell's script, which debuted with a 2010 production that invited the audience to ride shotgun with a sarcastic Scrooge. Revisions to the script and to the production's overall tone mean that when Scrooge delivers his would-be zingers, no one's laughing any more.

That's a good thing, because when we snicker with Scrooge, we're mocking the story's basic premise: that people can recognize their errors and change their ways. The transformed political climate also plays a role in how this material lands, among audiences and artists alike. The spectacle of an aged rich man abusively spurning those who come to him with desperate hopes and open hearts is now the stuff of daily headlines, with no seasonal respite.

Last year, Charity Jones became the Guthrie's first female Scrooge, but only in a few performances. She has over a dozen star turns in this year's run, again sharing the role with Nathaniel Fuller — whose own Scrooge has evolved in a more reflective direction. Whichever Scrooge you see this year, you'll see a performance that's moving in its restraint, trusting the spirits and their journey.

You'll also see a refreshed supporting cast with hardly a weak link, performing as a true ensemble and finding flavor to savor in every role from street urchins to starring spirits. Kendall Anne Thompson gives the Ghost of Christmas Past a welcome bite, and Ansa Akyea's warm Ghost of Christmas Present properly shines. As evidence of the care Keating and her cast put into storytelling, watch the seemingly incidental moments involving Scrooge's housekeeper (Emily Gunyou Halaas) at the edges of the Wurtele Thrust Stage: with just a few quick strokes, we get a sense of this character's entire life outside Scrooge's counting-house penthouse.

Hands down, though, this year's VIPs are the Cratchits. Meghan Kreidler returns as a loving and clear-eyed maternal figure, while Michael Curran-Dorsano plays Bob with apt modesty. Add a rotating cast of kids bursting with life, and you have a Cratchit clan that feels like a family you know, not just a pathos-laden tableau for Scrooge to peruse.

Even Tiny Tim, the story's most infamously saccharin character, really connects this year. You've heard his catchphrase a million times, but it may never have affected you the way it will now: not just tossed off, but held with pauses that invite you to really think about what it means. "God, bless us. Every. One."