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McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, currently housing The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem's An Old Salem Christmas Carol, is a model for a theater or small concert hall in a museum. The acoustics are clear, the seats are angled, and everyone has a good view. If only the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh had facilities like this, instead of a low, rectangular, space with not enough seats and not enough stage. But it does take two or three floors instead of one to accommodate a real concert hall like this. Those of us with hearing issues find many theatrical productions difficult to understand; halls like this are just the ticket. (If this is a concern for you, note that this production offers hearing assistance technology.)
I showed up early, and good thing; the hall was sold out. If you are interested in seeing this show, get your tickets now! While milling in the lobby, the audience snacked on gourmet finger food to get in the mood for Dickens and a hungrier century.
Oklahoma playwright Stephen P. Scott wrote a version thirty years ago of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, set in Oklahoma just after the Land Run of 1889. A Territorial Christmas Carol has become a tradition for the Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where it has run every year (save one) since. Director Lane Fields was a resident company member with the Pollard Theater and affiliated with Oklahoma City Repertory Theater before moving to NC in 2014. Having a familiarity with Scott's version, Field asked Scott to write a version set in Salem and Winston, back in 1887. Scott had come close to finishing the new play when he died last August, age 64, after a brief battle with cancer. Field then completed the script.
Scott was an amateur playwright, having made his living as a printer, teaching assistant, graphic designer, computer technician, goat farmer, and other jobs as needed. I think this is his only play. It is a decent effort, but don't expect Ibsen or Chekov. Likewise with the production, which is well done for its type, but clearly not a professional show. This should be best enjoyed with a healthy suspension of disbelief and with an extra dollop of slack. There are 45 parts performed by 24 actors; that's a lot of costumes and changes.
The play is in three parts: a brief opening set in an inn in Old Salem, then the body of the play as we are used to it (nearly), then a short ending back in the inn. While everyone is speaking with genuine local accents, a visitor arrives from England named Charlie (that is to say, Dickens). He offers to tell a little story and commences to narrate the beginning and end of the body of the play. Scrooge also has an English accent, but the rest of the cast use Carolina accents of differing thicknesses. That's a little confusing, but as I say, a healthy dollop of suspension of disbelief is in order.
The set is cleverly set up with two rotating sections on either side, and on two levels. It is possible to see actors in back moving things around, but it would be difficult, and probably costly, to rectify that. This allows the many different places where this play occurs, starting off in Scrooge's office with the poor Bob Cratchit, then the street scenes, and then all the places the spirits lead Scrooge into – quite a challenge for a set designer. Scrooge is played by Tim Austin, and as you may imagine, it is a far larger part than any other in the play. He brought quite a bit of energy to the stage and held the show together.
Apart from the beginning and ending segments, which are quite short, the play is pretty much very close to the standard fare. You really can't go wrong with such an old chestnut, and I would think it likely that the Little Theater will consider doing this production fairly often, if not annually. There has been a large investment in the sets and costumes and, as with the usual holiday concerts and ballets, things tend to solidify into a handful of classics year after year. I'm not sure that's a terrific thing, as new material fights over a smaller share of the limited pie, but it does tend to pay the bills and please the audience. While only a few children were in the audience, this is decidedly a family-friendly show, not only from the content but also the limited duration. Excluding the brief intermission, the show time was no more than an hour-and-a-half, which is plenty for something like this.
The audience was pleased; Tim Austin got a standing ovation. It was an enjoyable evening. If you're in the region and in the mood, it's a fun time.
An Old Salem Christmas Carol continues through Saturday, December 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.