Joel Leffert portraying a ghostly Jacob Marley in his one-man adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," directed by Anita Stewart at Portland Stage Company. (Courtesy PSC/Mical Hutson)
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Have you ever found yourself, Scroogishly, dismissing “A Christmas Carol” as just a little too sentimental, a little too familiar? If so, you may find this year’s holiday season shaking things up in both form and function.

That’s because, for pandemic safety reasons, many theater companies are offering one-man adaptations – and the image of a man alone in a room confronting himself has special resonance in late 2020.

In Portland Stage Company’s production, Joel Leffert adapts and stars in a production that might just revive both the terror and redemption of the well-weathered parable. PSC’s “A Christmas Carol,” directed by Anita Stewart and with live Foley effects by Nancy Nichols, runs live on stage through Dec. 24 and streams online through Jan. 10 (to review, I watched the show online).

Our tale begins as Leffert, nicely done up in Victorian vest and coat, strikes a match, lights a candle, and elongates his face over it ghoulishly – the timeless facial announcement of a scary story. The stage he occupies is dim and wide open, bare but for a few spare furnishings that emerge from the dark as the lights change. Behind him is a low London skyline against the theater’s low-lit brick back wall, and downstage are an array of candles and old books. The stage looks set for something ritualistic and primal, something that takes place more than anywhere else, perhaps, within the hero’s consciousness.

Joel Leffert’s one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” at Portland Stage Company, is available to stream through Jan. 10, 2021. (Courtesy PSC/Mical Hutson)

Pre-heroic Scrooge is a horrible person, of course, and one of the pleasures of this adaptation is that we hear so much about him from our keen-witted narrator. Charles Dickens’ prose is deliciously rich in edges, music, and winking ironies, and it cuts to the bone particularly when it comes to human nature.

Thus we can delight in hearing Scrooge described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” and “as secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” And in another great bit of narration, as Scrooge returns home from the office on that fateful night: “It was dark. But darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Ha! Some of us may have forgotten that Dickens not only provides a moral vision of empathy and charity: Dickens is also funny.

Leffert lights up those little moments of comedy in a remarkable performance that shifts continually between roles and moods. Moving between the myriad characters of “A Christmas Carol” is a lot to ask of one actor, and I can only imagine how painful it might be to watch in the hands of someone of lesser skills.

But Leffert is a master – deft, fleet, and protean. He’s also assured enough in his gifts that he doesn’t need to show character changes by constantly jerking his body and craning his neck back and forth between, say, Fred and Uncle Scrooge sparring over the merits of Christmas. 

On the contrary, Leffert’s performance is marvelously fluid, with the various characters animating him from within, rather than as positions to scuttle between on the stage. The various characters’ postures, gestures, and voices slip in and out of Leffert as if the story itself were a river moving through him – now Scrooge’s cold-stiffened hunch and growl; now Fred with his chest and voice lifted as if buoyed by his heart – and it’s a pleasure to be carried along.

This difficult but technologically simple work is echoed and enriched by the show’s other theatrical components: Nichols at the Foley table contributes ratchety door creaks and clanking chains; elemental lighting helps shift between characters and moods. All the candles light up at once as Scrooge looks into the festive past of Fezziwig’s party; a spooky green light illuminates Leffert as Marley’s contorted face on a door knocker. 

And the fact that all of this is enacted on a dim, near-bare stage gives the story an almost Jungian quality, as if these terrifying spirits and their reproaches all emerge out of the dark of the man himself – perhaps the scariest kind of ghost story. We might miss, just a little, the sight of a huge, unearthly Ghost of Christmas Future in its cloak. But it’s in some ways more unnerving to watch the face of a man encountering it. 

“A Christmas Carol” is a tale about life and death, after all, as 2020 gives us ample reason to remember. And Portland Stage Company’s fine production strips it down to its crucial essence.

And it should be familiar. “God bless us, everyone,” goes the show’s famous crowning line, and this year has brought us all new clarity about that sentiment – and about the truth that we can’t save ourselves without saving each other. 

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Adapted by and starring Joel Leffert, with Foley by Nancy Nichols. Directed by Anita Stewart for Portland Stage Company. Runs live through Dec. 24 and streams through Jan. 10. Visit portlandstage.org.