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A new, no-nonsense 'Christmas Carol'

After having its opening postponed for a week, the production of "A Christmas Carol" that finally arrived Thursday night at Oregon Stage Works was clean, warm and faithful to the original. Directed and produced by Michael Meyer and Peter Alzado, the production is based on a new adaptation by Evalyn Hansen.

Hansen said she reread Dickens' classic and saw every film and TV version she could get her hands on before tackling the job of plucking Scrooge, Marley, Cratchet, Tiny Tim and the others from Dickens' pages and plopping them down on the stage.

Sometimes a long journey brings you right back to where you started. In an age of novel, often far-fetched reinterpretations of classics, Hansen and company have delivered a stripped-down, back-to-basics, no-nonsense version of the tale.

This is very much your father's Scrooge, probably your grandparents', too. There's a presentational quality that befits the familiarity of the material, with two narrators on the stage and actors picking up the narration here and there as they enter and/or change sets between scenes.

The key, as always, is Scrooge, whose redemption, after all, is our subject. And veteran actor Don Dolan makes a wonderful Scrooge. When the ghost of Marley (veteran actor Paul Jones, wan as the winter moon in pale makeup) first shows up in Scrooge's chambers, he tells the old miser he's going to have a scary adventure. Dolan pauses a beat, regarding Marley.

"I think I'd rather not," he says quickly.

Whereupon Marley shakes his chains most fearsomely and breaks the news about the coming ghosts.

Scrooge thus moves from his bah-humbug period to the second stage of his arc, which we might call the gee-whiz stage, during which he witnesses and reacts to the spectacles introduced by the three ghosts. It's here that he begins to experience the cracks in the greedhead psychic armor he's spent a lifetime constructing for himself.

It's all an irony-free zone. Hansen worked not to tweak it around but to serve Dickens' text. Novels don't always make the best plays, but "Carol" has a simplicity and clarity and narrative energy that might well be play-proof.

Alzado and Meyer render the scenes on the road, the meadow, Scrooge's old school and Fezziwig's warehouse by having the ghosts simply whisk Scrooge around the OSW's nearly bare stage, which is essentially a thrust inside a black box, here dominated by Charles Couraud's amazing, giant painted backdrop of Dickensian London, about which, a word.

"Looks Chagall-ish," one theatergoer said, referring to the fantastical-joyous Yiddish-Russian artist (who did, incidentally, create murals for theaters). Couraud's impressionistic London is a panorama of buildings scattered pell-mell under a sky that looks like "Starry Night"-era Van Gogh.

But it's the transformation of Scrooge that's out center. This is the third and final stage of Scrooge's arc, arriving as suddenly as the old man wakes up on Christmas morning and takes in the sunshine and chill air with the zest of a man reborn from the brink of the Abyss. His first act, of course, is to send a street urchin to buy the big goose hanging in the poulterer's shop a street away.

Oddly (and people never mention it), this first expression of his newfound largesse depends on somebody else (the poulterer) keeping his shop open on Christmas Day — a decision very much in the manner of the old, pre-awakening, bah-humbug-era Scrooge.

But never mind that. Dolan reels around the stage like a man thunderstruck with the realization that the simplest things are the most profound: family, friends, kindness, mercy, the ineffable preciousness of each moment. Happiness sometimes seems more difficult for actors to embody than more negative emotions, and Dolan radiates it.

There were a few rough edges Friday having to do with pacing, lines and reactions, but they were the kind of opening-night wrinkles that get ironed out during the run. "A Christmas Carol" ran an hour and 45 minutes and felt much shorter, a good sign. It's holiday fare for the whole family, and it plays at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland through Dec. 30.

Bill Varble recently retired as the arts and entertainment reporter at the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bvarble@mailtribune.com.