By Jerome Tharaud
When Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, the novel was so popular it created a revival of Christmas tradition in England. The Montana Actors' Theatre is hoping to create a local tradition of its own as it puts on a production of a play based on the novel for the second year this weekend.
The cast of Tiny Tim (Jessa Pyette), Bob Cratchit (Jay Pyette), Ebenezer Scrooge (Frank Payn) and the rest take the stage tonight and Saturday night, and again Sunday afternoon in the courtroom on the third floor of the Heritage Center.
People who attended last year's production won't see an exact replica.
This year's play features more of the scenes from earlier in Scrooge's life, said Donald Mayer, who plays Scrooge as a young man as he sacrifices love to his own ambition.
"You get more of an idea of how Scrooge came to be Scrooge," Mayer said. "That's what I like about this one is you get to see that transformation."
Director Grant Olson, who also plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, adapted the script from the novel, trimming it down to its current length of less than an hour.
"I read through the book a million times," Olson said. "I picked the scenes that most people would probably recognize."
Olson kept the old chestnuts, from "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail" to "God Bless Us, Every One!" But he also added in some new twists, like period music, a series of angular set pieces reminiscent of Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and sound effects that emphasize the novel's exploration of the supernatural.
"I wanted reality and the dreamlike to kind of intermingle in what was going on," Olson said.
He also said he focused on the darker aspects of the story to emphasize Scrooge's transformation at the end.
Cast member Erin Olson, whose role as the thief who pawns Scrooge's bedclothes during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, said she likes the different take.
"You always see it as this lighthearted kids movie," she said. "It's just kind of different. It's fun."
Samuel Allison, 8, who plays Scrooge as a young boy, said his favorite part of the show is the snowball fight beneath Scrooge's window on Christmas morning.
Bonnie Hall, who plays Mrs. Cratchit, said her role means she has to keep control of the slew of small children in the Cratchit household.
"Dealing with this many kids is a tough job for me," she said.
"They're going to steal the show," Olson said, adding that the cast's youngest members took direction very well and were fun to work with.
Pyette said the advantage of doing a story that everyone is familiar with is that a cast can make stylistic changes, and people will always know the story. Whatever the changes in emphasis, Pyette said, Dickens' strengths come through.
"I guess the reason I like Dickens is, I love the atmosphere Dickens can create. I think he establishes a feeling. I think he's very gifted at creating mood and I think that's one thing you see in this show."
Payn, who plays the character at the center of all the mood and atmosphere, said he has always wanted the chance to play the humbug.
"This has been one of my favorite plays since I was young, and I've watched many different versions of it," Payn said, adding that he even directed it once at Havre Middle School. "I knew most of the lines already, and I've always wanted to play this role."
For the second year in a row, the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce is covering the expenses to put on the play, and will use the proceeds to help pay off the debt for the Town Square project, as well help cover the operating costs of the Heritage Center, said Debbie Vandeberg, Chamber executive director.
That's a fitting result of a play that some cast members say still has much to teach.
"It's sort of an attitude of forgiveness and charitability that today's society needs to learn," Olson said.
Sean Williams, who plays James in the play, said he thinks the play will help get people into the Christmas spirit.
"I just think it gives you a place you can come and, for an hour at least, forget you're in this complex world and go back to a simpler time," he said.
A preview gala featuring hors d'oeuvres, Christmas music and a no-host bar will be held tonight at 6:30 in the Heritage Center lobby. The play starts at 7:30 p.m. The gala and play cost $20. The play will show again Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Tickets for those days are $7.50 for adults and $6 for students and seniors.