A tale of two Dickens events

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

Charles Dickens gave us perennial classics such as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Oliver Twist,” but he’s perhaps best known for “A Christmas Carol.” The quintessential holiday tale of redemption inspired the James City County Library and the Williamsburg Players to host two Dickensian events leading up to Christmas.

The library is celebrating the 19th-century writer’s continued influence Friday with “A Dickens Christmas,” an assortment of performances, talks, games and more geared toward all ages.

Neil Hollands, an adult services librarian at the Williamsburg Regional Library, said the event stemmed from the success of a similar endeavor, “Janeuary,” which celebrated the works of Jane Austen in January.

“We knew that the time of year to do Charles Dickens would be the Christmas time frame,” Hollands said, praising the author’s influence not only on Christmas but on culture in general. “Probably more than any other individual, he created the way that we practice Christmas.”

Hollands said that during Dickens’ era, Christmas was losing popularity. “A Christmas Carol” helped revive it while also popularizing the enduring “Merry Christmas” greeting and the concept of turkey as the centerpiece of the holiday’s meal. He said the author also helped foster the philosophy that Christmas is about family and generosity toward others.

“That’s what inspired us,” he said.

The library event features several presenters. Wilford Kale will relay the history of Christmas in Virginia and Dr. Simon Joyce, an English professor at the College of William and Mary, will discuss Dickens’ interest in child welfare. Food historian Kimberly Costa will talk about Christmas food traditions, and a former engineer will relay the history of Virginia’s Santa trains inside the adjacent Norge Depot.

The Virginia Theatre Machine is also planning two outdoor performances of their 30-minute adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Hollands said he admired the group’s creative approach to a story told countless times before.

“They rewrite the story a little bit every year, so it’s always original,” he said. “They just really bring a lot of joy to an old story, but I think in a style that Dickens would approve of.”

The parking lot will also feature the library’s first food truck, with Foodatude serving snacks, meals and hot drinks to keep guests warm.

Events specifically for children include crafts, a family singalong and a puppet show dubbed, “A Christmas without Rudolph.” Singers and musicians from several local schools, including Jamestown High School and Toano Middle School, will provide seasonal ambiance alongside the Williamsburg Youth Harp Society.

Hollands said “A Dickens Christmas” complements bigger, costlier holiday events, such as Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town.

“People talk a lot about Christmas getting too commercialized,” he said. “But I hope this is the kind of event that families can come out and inexpensively have a great time celebrating the holiday and the traditions behind it.”

Another “Christmas Carol”

Although “A Christmas Carol” remains a popular play each holiday season, this month marks the Williamsburg Players’ first time tackling the tale. The play features eight actors playing the story’s many characters, including Brink Miller as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he performed in Atlanta for more than 20 years before moving to Williamsburg.

Miller, who also directs the play, said Dickens’ supernatural story was a bold move upon its initial 1843 publication, when it was looked down upon by the aristocracy.

“But the populace loved it,” he said, and the author’s effort to revive the spirit of Christmas spread like gifts raining from Santa’s sleigh. “Now, it’s all over the world.”

Miller hopes audiences will see his interpretation and leave the theater with similar holiday cheer.

“Because it’s a universal thing,” he said of the story of someone in a bad place in life, of their own doing, faced with the choice of changing one’s fate or continuing down the same path.

Jason Kriner, the play’s assistant and music director, said the script remains true to Dickens’ writing. It’s bookended with the story of a modern day child, whose parents call him to dinner but instead, he opens up “A Christmas Carol” and finds himself sucked into the story as Tiny Tim, as well as other roles.

The set is relatively simple, with the left third serving as Scrooge’s office and the right third as his bedroom. The center portion hosts the rest of the action. The production uses different lighting styles to give each scene and location a unique identity.

“It’s been a really creative and dynamic process,” Kriner said.

During auditions, a fiddler auditioned, and Kriner felt that would be a unique addition while incorporating continuity between scenes. Singers perform carols throughout as well. The knocker on the door into Scrooge’s home folds away to be replaced by the face of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, and other special effects appear throughout.

“We’ve added to it. That was part of the creative process,” Kriner said. “That’s been fun, to be able to think on our feet.”

Ginger Ambler, Miller’s daughter and the actress who plays the ghost of Christmas past and Mrs. Cratchit, among other characters, said the show can inspire those in the audience to reflect on their own actions. That’s a goal Miller supports as well.

“I hope they leave with a spirit of giving and generosity toward humankind,” he said. “Every one of us can be redeemed.”

Want to go?

“A Dickens Christmas” lights up 4-8:30 p.m. Friday at the James City County Library. Admission is free.

The Williamsburg Players present “A Christmas Carol” 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday at the James-York Playhouse, 200 Hubbard Lane. Repeats Dec. 14-16. Tickets are $15 or $12 for students and military, available at williamsburgplayers.org.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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