According to the Guthrie Theater, nearly half of their Christmas Carol audiences are first-timers. If that includes you, sit back and enjoy the haunting music, the ghosts' dramatic entrances, and the snowy Victorian set.
If you're a repeat Carol-er, though, you might direct your attention to some of the many gratifying details in director Lauren Keating's carefully considered production. Here are a few examples.
Portraying the period. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. While the story now has the feel of a timeless classic, the Guthrie's production is full of specific touches that bring the audience back to a particular place and time. Watch for the children's wooden toys, and peer into the shop windows to spy seasonal temptations like a tall stack of oranges: Citrus was a rare treat, and oranges became a traditional stocking-stuffer. When Scrooge (Nathaniel Fuller) shares an orange with a child near the end of the show, it's a sign that he's rediscovered a guileless spirit of generosity.
Differences from Dickens. Crispin Whittell's script, of course, does differ from Dickens in some meaningful ways. The centerpiece of Walt Spangler's set is a rotating home and office for Scrooge; in the novella, the miser has to leave his counting-house to walk alone through the cold streets to a dismal flat. More significantly, this is one of many adaptations that expand the character of Belle. In Dickens, we don't even meet Scrooge's beau until their breakup scene. At the Guthrie, Maya Lagerstam's vivacious Belle is seen to share true affection with the young Scrooge (Ryan Colbert) until another idol displaces her.
Sticking the landings. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Elizabeth Reese) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ansa Akyea) both arrive by air but proceed on foot. The near-instantaneous way both actors are able to unhitch their hidden harnesses from the thin but sturdy wires that safely deposit them onstage is a testament to the exceptional craft of the Guthrie's design team.
Follow the snow globe. Like Charles Foster Kane, Ebenezer Scrooge has a snow globe that serves as a poignant reminder of his youth. The globe's symbolism isn't exactly subtle, but in the flurry of movement that opens the show you might miss the way we're whisked forward in time as the glass orb is passed from a child's hands to the hands of young Scrooge and finally to old Scrooge... who keeps it, you'll see if you look closely, close at his bedside.
Watch the clock. A flashing clock suspended above the Wurtele Thrust Stage heralds the ghosts' arrivals, but also underlines the story's surreal sense of time collapsing. Watch the hands spin wildly at times, and listen for the persistent ticking that reminds Scrooge of his wasted decades and the vanishing window of opportunity to change his ways.
Telling character moments. The production is full of small moments that reveal characters' inner conflicts and true natures. Actors will occasionally step to the edge of the stage and turn toward the audience, away from the action behind them, to betray their true thoughts with open expressions. Also, consider the subtle tone of scenes like the one where Emily Gunyou Halaas, as Scrooge's maid, sells his sheets. Old Joe (Charity Jones) cackles callously, but Halaas gives the scene a tug of sadness. She would rather have been appreciated by her employer during his lifetime, we feel, than be required to resort to such a sordid scheme.
Amplifying the themes. Sound designers Scott W. Edwards and Reid Rejsa and lighting designers Christopher Akerlind and Ryan Connealy reinforce the impression of the ghosts' otherworldly powers. Listen for how the ghosts' voices echo when other actors' don't—thanks to a little theatrical magic—and watch for the precisely choreographed moments when the Ghost of Christmas Past spins her hands like a supernatural DJ to skim through time, sometimes pausing to reflect and then bringing the beat back.
A spirit of inclusivity. It's pernicious to imagine that the entirely white, exclusively straight London from countless other adaptations of this material was reflective of the reality of its setting. (As readers of the story know, Dickens himself included the cook's brother's "particular friend," the milkman, in the Fezziwigs' festivities.) The Guthrie's production is one in which more viewers can see themselves reflected onstage in this story of universal relevance.
A pointed message. Keating's sprightly but substantive production communicates the stakes of the story's moral crisis—not just for Scrooge, but for all of us. The Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware the clawing avatars of want and ignorance, who return as a reminder of their continuing threat. The most dangerous of the two, says the ghost, is ignorance. We can't change our ways when we blind ourselves to the truth.