The play Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol can’t decide if it wants to be a serious yet ultimately uplifting drama, or a comical spin on a Christmas classic.
As the work unfolds on the Weathervane Playhouse stage, the play doesn’t succeed in either genre. That can largely be blamed on weak, often tedious writing by Tom Mula, a Chicago-based actor, director and playwright.
His premise is thought-provoking: to explore the back story for the character Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ famous work. Scrooge’s dead business partner shows up as the first terrifying ghost in Scrooge’s bedchamber, but who was this man and how did he come to be damned?
We learn about Marley’s sad childhood, his relationship with Scrooge and his manner of death. But Mula puts the audience through excessive exposition before getting to the point of his story: Marley must return to earth and redeem the miser Scrooge in order to have a chance at salvation himself.
Larry Nehring, the play’s director and an Equity actor, creates a strong dramatic presence as Marley, who is dismayed to learn that in the great counting house in the afterlife, his debits are great and his credit is nonexistent. This means he is damned for eternity.
Four actors assume a variety of roles and serve as narrators describing the action and feelings of their own characters, as when the wind whips Marley through the night sky toward hell. This technique of having each actor constantly slip back and forth between character and narrator is awkward.
The nearly bare set incorporates elaborate risers as well as a turntable from the set of the theater’s current musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In the first act, director Nehring has the actors using the turntable all too much, to the point of distraction.
Using the turntable was unnecessary, and this play may have been better served and created a greater sense of intimacy performed in Weathervane’s black box Dietz theater.
Thursday night’s performance was plagued by some technical difficulties. The stage manager’s offstage cues could be heard over the words of the actors through much of the first act. The problem was solved by the second act.
Other trouble came with sound effects: A multitude of cuckoo clock sounds in the counting house sounded cool but their volume overpowered the words of actress Bethany Stahler as the Record Keeper. Sound effects also went overboard in one ear-splitting, screeching, scratching sound that introduced the Shadow (a Grim Reaper).
As in the original A Christmas Carol, this play has flashbacks, including to Marley’s youth. But the story makes an awkward jump from one flashback of Marley’s past to those of Scrooge’s past.
Jason Bryan Maurer creates a schizophrenic sort of Scrooge, going from a bombastic, curmudgeonly voice to a more sarcastic, contemporary manner of speaking. He doesn’t register any surprise or fear when the ghost of Marley first appears to him.
Playwright Mula tries to slip in some more contemporary-sounding laugh lines here and there, but they are dull attempts at humor. This show cannot be billed as a clever comedy.
Brian Kenneth Armour’s Bogle character, a devil who accompanies Marley on his journey, is meant to add some levity to a dark story. But his character’s trite language often falls flat, such as when he tells Marley, “Devil is such a hurtful word, and imprecise.’’
The actors in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol are working hard, and the play is based on a good idea. But unlike the original classic, this reconceived tale does not ring as an eloquent tale of redemption. Its uninspired storytelling makes for a tedious evening at the theater.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.