Since it was first published in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has enthused and delighted audiences across media forms for generations. It’s been brought to the stage as both a play and a musical.
Here in Massachusetts, the North Shore Music Theatre has staged a theatrical performance of the story since 1989, with David Coffee starring as Scrooge for the past 29 seasons. In Lowell, Karen MacDonald returns this season for her second year playing Ebenezer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Both Coffee and MacDonald joined GBH News Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen to unpack the long and complicated story of “A Christmas Carol,” and what it means for them to return to their starring roles.
For Coffee, who has played the role many times even outside of his 29 years at North Shore Music Theatre, he said that he approaches the character as if “looking at a very hurt person.” This empathy for Scrooge allows Coffee and audiences to understand that Christmas “is the hardest time of the year for him to deal with,” since so much of the trauma that is unpacked during his ghostly visits happened around the holidays.
MacDonald concurred that Scrooge “feels like this person [who] is so hard and protected and in this weird cocoon that he calls his office." MacDonald concluded that “it’s a story of redemption, ultimately. I think that it is possible for anyone to be redeemed. And maybe that’s a really good thing to remember in these days.”
“I’ve changed, but he doesn’t change," Coffee said of performing Scrooge for so many years. "I have an instinctive feeling for him.”
Having grown up with the story, as many have, Coffee said that “whether you’ve actually even seen the show [or not], you know these characters.” Even in childhood, Coffee understood and related to the experience of Scrooge more than that of characters like Tiny Tim, because he said, “I’ve just always had a kinship with him. I didn’t go so far as to build a shell around myself, but I can understand where he was coming from.”
Comparatively, for MacDonald, approaching this character particularly as a woman was vastly different. When Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Courtney Sale first asked MacDonald to join the cast, MacDonald said, “it was not her desire for her production to be Mrs. Scrooge, it was to be Ebenezer Scrooge. As a woman, having a chance to play that character, I stuck with the story [from] the book as opposed to looking necessarily at films.”
MacDonald emphasized the importance of bringing one’s own spin to the role, avoiding other stage and screen iterations of “A Christmas Carol.”
Notably, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production has a local tie. MacDonald explained that Sale deliberately looked to records from Charles Dickens’ visit to Lowell while planning the production. Dickens had visited Lowell just 20 years after its founding, when, as MacDonald explained, “it was still in its idealistic period where mill girls were coming, mostly from New Hampshire, from Vermont, from Maine,” to work. Many of these mill girls had a passion for writing, and when Dickens was in the area, they shared more than 400 pages of work with him, particularly pieces about ghost stories.
“He came to Lowell, he read some of the ghost stories and the very next thing he wrote was 'A Christmas Carol.’ So whether it was an inspiration [or not], it’s a lovely connection,” MacDonald said. Before each performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at MRT, MacDonald plays Dickens in a short prologue explaining this local connection.