There may be lots of ghosts in this town, but for Elijah Strube, the Scrooge-like character in a new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” three taking the shape of local statues are particularly disturbing. In the Arena Stage’s newest production, “Christmas Carol 1941,” the classic Charles Dickens tale gets relocated from London in the mid-19th century to Washington, D.C., in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The new place and time don’t change the play’s classic message encouraging the Christmas spirit. “I think it’s a very, very adaptable story,” said the playwright, James Magruder, who had never read the Dickens story until he began writing this new version.
“Christmas Carol 1941,” which opened on Nov. 16, centers on Strube, a miserable and dishonest District businessman who, like the original Scrooge, is visited on Christmas Eve by three spirits who make him rethink his past. These spirits, however, take the shape of the Winged Victory statue that sits atop a memorial near the White House honoring members of the Army’s 1st Division who died in World War I and subsequent conflicts, the bronze Statue of Freedom gracing the dome of the Capitol and a statue known as the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery. The Rock Creek statue was commissioned by journalist and historian Henry Adams in honor of his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, who committed suicide in 1885.
Although the play is an adaptation of Dickens’ original story, Magruder said he drew heavily on influences from his own family. The character Henry Schroen resembles the original tale’s Bob Cratchit but shares the hard work ethic and strong family values of Magruder’s grandfather.
Schroen, played by Lawrence Redmond, a two-time recipient and multiple nominee of the Helen Hayes Award for D.C. theater professionals, is Strube’s loyal employee who embodies all the values Strube lacks.
“Getting all of the information from the playwright has been pretty amazing,” Redmond said, adding that he’s even looked at some of Magruder’s family photos for inspiration. “Sometimes those things can really, really help you,” Redmond said.
The actor also was able to draw on memories of his own father, a dedicated committee staffer and legislative aide on Capitol Hill during the 1940s and 1950s.
Redmond said he thinks some audience members will appreciate the D.C. twist, but others might be more loyal to the classic version.
“I don’t know just exactly how people will feel,” Redmond said. “One third will just go with it,” he predicted. “I think another third … they’ll have fun sort of figuring out the adaptation,” and the last third will ask, ‘where’s Tiny Tim?’”
Magruder said he thinks that even though the play is filled with local references, like Strube’s office, which is located on G Street Northwest, anyone would be able to appreciate the story line.
“Anyone can grasp the message that in 1941 … we all made some sacrifices together to start to defeat a common enemy,” Magruder said, calling the play “patriotic without being nationalistic.”
Redmond also said he thinks the play has a universal message.
“A lot of people will find that it’s a very timely story in that way that we’re finding out that there’s a lot of American points of view in how we deal with employees, how we deal with each other,” he said.
“Christmas Carol 1941” is the final production on the Fichandler Stage on Sixth Street Southwest. The Arena Stage production company will temporarily move to Crystal City in Virginia until the Mead Center for American Theater opens in 2010, according to the theater’s Web site.
The play will run until Dec. 30 with evening performances and matinees every weekday except Mondays. The show begins at 7:30 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday nights, and at 8 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Weekend matinees start at 2 p.m. and occasional weekday matinees begin at noon. Tickets are $55 to $76, and discounts are available for students, groups and anyone under 30. For more information, visit arenastage.org.