"It doesn't scare me yet," the little boy behind me at the Guthrie Theater's "A Christmas Carol" kept saying. And, even if this particular critic was sitting on his parent's lap, he does have a point.
Some noisy, Aerosmith-style flashpots aside, there's nothing too scary about the Guthrie's current "A Christmas Carol," and its Scrooge isn't even especially hateful (I saw Nathaniel Fuller, who's doing 43 performances in the lead role, with Charity Jones doing the other 13). Under Lauren Keating's direction and paced by Fuller's thoughtfully calibrated performance, this "Carol" is more interested in making sure that we understand exactly what it is that leads the miserly protagonist to embrace the generous, joyful spirit of Christmas — or, more precisely, to find within himself the joyful spirit that has been dormant since his childhood.
Like a band that drops an early hit early to tide us over through a stretch of new songs that even fans don't know, this "Carol" opens with a reassuring blast of Christmas cheer: carols, frippery and a glimpse of a still-happy Scrooge as a child. Soon enough, though, Scrooge ixnays the holidays with his bah-humbugging and "no-you-can't-take-Christmas-off"-ing. Quickly, we're in the midst of visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and then — spoiler alert — the old coot resolves to make up for lost time.
This version of the tale is designed to appeal to a wide swath of theatergoers, that youthful critic included. And even if it slides too quickly over some favorite parts of the book, it lingers over many memorable details. For instance, I'm all about Emily Gunyou Halaas as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's quick-witted housekeeper. She is consistently hilarious but also offers a sweetly complex moment in which Dilber, who has surely suffered mightily at the hands of her nasty employer, can't help but wish him a "Merry Christmas," anyway.
For me, this production hinges on those character moments that contain two competing impulses at once: Eric Sharp also has one as Scrooge's cheery nephew, who continues trying to perk up his uncle, even though he knows it's useless. And Scrooge himself gets in the spirit, very late in the game, in a lovely scene when Fuller's Scrooge, choking with a compassion his character has not felt in some time, wishes employee Bob Cratchit "a better Christmas, good fellow, than I've given you in many a year."
These details — festive, yes, but clouded with regret or longing or fear — underscore that Scrooge isn't alone in his ambivalence about the holiday, even if he's a bit extreme. This Scrooge isn't a hateful man because he's a recognizable one, a person who has made romantic mistakes and who has suffered from a sort of free-floating anxiety since he was a youth, too obsessed by preparations for the future to realize he was screwing up the present (Ryan Colbert is terrific as the harried young Scrooge).
Now, of course, he's an old man, looking back at the past to help him figure out if he has a future. As he does, Scrooge is surrounded by a cast in which Keating finds multiple tiny ways to show we're all in this search together (Ansa Akyea's Christmas Present has come to London from the continent of Africa, judging by the accent Akyea uses, and a couple of gay revelers share a love that not only dares speak its name, but dares to give a kiss on the cheek, too).
It's still set in the Victorian era, but what makes this lighthearted "A Christmas Carol" modern is this takeaway: Maybe all of us occasionally feel overwhelmed by the holidays and, if that's the case, what's so scary about that?