‘Carol for Cleveland’ captures local holiday spirit onstage

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal arts writer

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(From left) Director Laura Kepley goes over lines with actors Lena Kaminsky, Marinda Anderson and Mia Knight, during a rehearsal of "A Carol for Cleveland" in the Cleveland Play House rehearsal hall at the Cleveland State University Arts Campus. The play is by Cleveland Heights playwright Eric Coble from the 1991 novella by Les Roberts of Stow. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

The new holiday play A Carol for Cleveland couldn’t be more Cleveland-centric: It’s written by Clevelanders about Clevelanders, performed by mostly Clevelanders for Clevelanders.

Les Roberts, best known for his Milan Jacovich mystery novels, wrote the bittersweet 32-page novella A Carol for Cleveland just a year after he moved to his adopted city in 1990. He came here from Los Angeles to create the Cash Explosion Double Play lottery game show, never intending to stay long. Now, the 75-year-old Chicago native, who moved to Stow three years ago, calls Cleveland his spiritual home.

Cleveland Play House artistic director Michael Bloom came up with the idea of adapting Roberts’ holiday story of redemption for the stage about five years ago. Other projects pushed the idea to the back burner, and just last spring, Bloom asked Eric Coble, a member of Cleveland Play House’s Playwrights Unit, if he thought he could bring the tale to life on stage.

Coble wrote a proposal for an expanded story and met with Roberts, Bloom and director Laura Kepley, who greenlighted the play. In the heat of July, Coble began toiling away in the non-air-conditioned third-floor office of his Cleveland Heights home, playing Christmas carols nonstop to get into the holiday spirit.

He worked closely with Kepley on rewrites and was both relieved and thrilled when Roberts said he was pleased with the play’s final draft.

“I just loved it,” Roberts said. “He [Coble] added new scenes, new characters, and he came up with a great twist at the end.

“I love the way that Eric, as I hope I did, captured the spirit and guts of Cleveland.”

Roberts wrote A Carol for Cleveland in 1991 as a gift to his new city. Only 1,150 copies were printed, and they sold out immediately. He said both the people and architecture of Cleveland continually inspire his writing.

Coble, who said his adaptation stays true to Roberts’ original story, said Roberts was gracious in giving him the space to make the original short story work for the stage. The family-friendly play will receive its world premiere next week, with previews beginning Friday.

Coble, 43, is also a transplant, having moved to Cleveland 20 years ago for the Ohio University Master of Fine Arts acting program at Cleveland Play House. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and raised on Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado.

The prolific playwright, whose Cleveland Play House world premiere Bright Ideas played off-Broadway, will make his Broadway debut in the spring with Velocity of Autumn, which premiered at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood. Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons and two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella will star in the two-character dramatic comedy, directed by Molly Smith of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

For A Carol for Cleveland, Coble chose to turn the original story into a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol, based in Cleveland. Ed Podolak, a laid-off steelworker from a small western Pennsylvania town, has become estranged from his family while struggling for a year trying to find work in Cleveland.

Ed, who feels like a failure, commits a desperate act on Christmas Eve. All is not lost, though, as Charlie Torbic, a Cleveland boy, reaches out to him in friendship.

Roberts’ novella focused on Ed’s painful present. Coble took the tale a step further by “finding the little seeds of magic that were within the novella … the seeds of grace, of hope.” In this way, Roberts said, Coble made Ed more complex in his flaws.

The playwright added flashbacks to the story to show what kind of person Ed used to be, including scenes depicting him meeting Diane, the love of his life; their blossoming romance; and, later, their unraveling marriage.

“Who was this guy at his best?” asked Coble, who explored this working-class man’s rise, fall and redemption.

Figurative Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are translated into Ed’s memories of Christmas past, his bleak present and the future that could be, represented by the loving Torbic family.

“He’s absolutely haunted by the ghosts of his past and of his own Christmases past, and he’s carrying that into the present,” Coble said of Ed.

Narrating the tale is This Guy, a Clevelander whose flavor of storytelling evokes the feel of the narrator from A Christmas Carol.

Roberts’ story was set in 1991 but Coble decided to move it back to the late ’70s, the early days of steelworkers losing their jobs when the Rust Belt era was emerging. He aimed to give this Christmas tale a sense of memory, which he believed would resonate more.

“Almost all great Christmas stories take place at some great distant remove from now,” Coble said.

Both Coble and Roberts say Cleveland itself is a character in this story. “That sense of determination which is really shown in the show is a huge aspect of the feel of the city,” Coble said.

Set designer Antje Ellerman and projections designer Sven Ortel are re-creating the look of Cleveland’s Public Square in the late ’70s, including its lighted trees, archetypal buildings and falling snow. Coble said the big reveal of the Public Square setting, where of course caroling will occur, promises to be awe-inspiring. Audiences can expect additional moments of delightful stage magic in the show.

“What I like about being a playwright is I know I can hand this off to people who are infinitely better than I would be” when it comes to the set, costumes and more, Coble said.

The play stars Cleveland actor Charles Kartali as Ed, of whom Coble said, “He has a very natural quality — kind of an everyman quality.”

All but two of the 15 cast members, including four child actors, are local. “It really feels like a Christmas spirit with everyone in the room together,” Coble said of the acting ensemble early this month.

Roberts, whose son, daughter-in-law and 4-year-old grandson will come from North Carolina for opening night, is looking forward to seeing his original work come alive at Cleveland Play House.

“I’m just astonished that something I wrote is being put on stage at a major American theater,” he said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.

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