A CHRISTMAS CAROL Set In Lowell, Opens In Portsmouth Dec 6
Director Deb Barry knew some people would raise an eyebrow when she set "A Christmas Carol" in Lowell, Mass. The Players' Ring had produced the Dickens holiday classic 24 times before and it was always set in London. But Lowell?
Yes, Lowell. And it turns out Barry knew what she was doing when she changed the stage version location of the 1843 British novella. Even the skeptics have come around since learning that Charles Dickens visited the industrial city of Lowell just before the book was published at the height of the industrial revolution.
"I discovered that the author visited Lowell in 1842 because he was very interested in seeing what industrialization meant in America," said Barry, a resident of Stratham who is familiar with this play she has acted in, made costumes for and stage managed at the Ring before. "The essential human condition and qualities of these characters in 'A Christmas Carol' existed in Lowell," she added.
In preparing for this production, Barry did extensive research on 19th century Lowell and its historic mill operations. She spent hours at the mills, where young women used to work long days making fabric from cotton shipped from the south. She talked to professors and historians and was thrilled to find her intuition validated.
To set the play in Lowell, Barry had to make only a few adjustments to the script adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" written by Gary Newton, founder of the Players' Ring, and then further adapted by Christopher Savage of Exeter.
"A Christmas Carol" tells the story of the hardened miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who receives the rarest of Christmas gifts when the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future take him on an overnight journey to discover who he truly is.
Although the script will tell the same story audiences know, the setting and sounds - including lobby décor - will be more reminiscent of Lowell.
Another change will be the accent of the characters, who will no longer be British, noted Steven Sacks, a retired Portsmouth attorney who will play the part of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Sacks also played Scrooge five years ago, but is looking forward to trying his hands at it again. At that time, he had been on a several-decade hiatus from acting and was just getting his feet wet again.
"Since 2014, I've been in a number of shows and studied acting and movement and so forth," Sacks said. "I don't want to diminish my interpretation then, but I felt ready to analyze the role in a different way."
Sacks has responded to Barry's focus on bringing out the humanity in each of the characters.
"The way we have worked with Deb involves a lot of real in-depth character analysis," he said. "I really examined and am still examining Scrooge's character and the reasons behind his transformation and what changes him."
Barry's goal is to have actors portray, and the audience feel, the characters' complexity, rather than seeing any of them as stereotypes. She has asked the actors to consider who they would each be as persons, and how their backgrounds might have influenced who they are.
"I really want to focus on the profound reality of this story," she said "I want every single character to come across as a genuine human being." For instance, she noted, the three sprits will not be costumed or portrayed in any ethereal way as ghosts.
"I don't necessarily want people to feel sorry for Ebenezer Scrooge but I think they will feel more sympathetic to him in this portrayal. He's is not just a grumpy old man," the director explained.
The part of Tiny Tim is played by Kara Lohndorf, 9, of Stratham who also appeared in Pippin. Scott Degan of Portsmouth, who also has acted with the Players' Ring before, will take on the part of Bob Cratchit.
Two musicians - David Moore of Lee on guitar and Christopher Dudley of Barnstead on fiddle - have been added to the cast to lead the Rings' tradition of singing Christmas carols with the participation of the audience.
For Barry, setting the play in Lowell was a way to emphasize the universality of the storyline. Although life in 19th-century Lowell was not as dire as in London, much of it was similar.
"The conditions Dickens was responding to were just down the road from us here, making this an American story instead of just a British story," Barry said. "But they exist everywhere in the world, and they don't belong to the 1800s only. People can rest assured they are going to enjoy the same story but our show will give them something to think about regarding its universality."
"A Christmas Carol" will be performed from Dec. 6 to 22 at the Players' Ring Theatre at 105 Marcy St. in Portsmouth, with added performances during the week: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 and 7 pm. A "Talkback," which gives the audience a chance to discuss the performance with the actors and director, will follow the 3 pm show on Sunday Dec. 8.
Tickets are $20 with discounts for students, seniors, children below 12, and Players' Ring members. Reservations can be made at playersring.org or 603-436-8123.