He’s been performing a one-man reenactment of the Charles Dickens classic novella, “A Christmas Carol” for more than a decade, but Paul Morella wasn’t the first guy to get on stage and play Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Charles John Huffam Dickens was.
“Dickens loved the theatre,” Morella explained. “He would have loved to have been an actor, but he didn’t think he had the skills.” Not like Morella does. The veteran actor, whose unique retelling of “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” unspools in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center through Dec. 29, has tackled roles on stage, on television and in movies, and his work as an adjunct professor at American University prepares future trial lawyers for the courtroom. He has researched Dickens, a prolific storyteller who lived in London from 1812 to 1870 and wrote scores of novels, novellas and short stories, and learned that while he was a popular live act, the author wasn’t always a commanding presence.
“In fact, Mark Twain met the future Mrs. Samuel Clemens at a reading of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Morella explained. “Twain was such a fan of Dickens he wanted to see the man that created these characters — and he wrote how disappointed he was: no pathos, no emotional depth; his voice was a little squeaky and had no range, he was hamming it up.”
Twain was extremely disappointed, even though he was thrilled to see the man who had created the characters that Victorian audiences adored. “His impression of Dickens was like Shakespeare in some ways,” laughed Morella. “‘This is the guy that wrote all these great stories?’”
But he had, from “The Pickwick Papers,” which began as a serial in 1936, to masterpieces like “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations.” The Victorian writer and social activist was wildly popular — Morella noted that Vincent Van Gogh was a big fan — and he did turn to acting once he had found success as an author.
After “A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843, he decided to go on tour with it. “He’d read from ‘A Christmas Carol’ for charity,” said Morella, “and there was such a great response, it fed into his own theatrical passion. He thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be able to read some of my other stories, maybe there’s a market for this.’ Tickets were sold, and it became very commercial for him, in addition to being something he really enjoyed.”
It was something audiences enjoyed, too — Mark Twain notwithstanding. “There are some people who would rave about his performances,” said Morella. “And a lot of the people that would come knew the story and — almost like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ — they would laugh, and they would cry, and they would fill in the blanks for certain words. Apparently, it was a fascinating experience.”
It still is, especially in the D.C. area, where Morella’s meticulously-staged version has been a tradition since 2008. “This will be the 11th year, if you count that first year at the Arts Barn. Tenth year at Olney,” said Morella.
How does he keep “A Christmas Carol” fresh year after year? “I will absorb anything and everything I can get my hands on, as far as ‘A Christmas Carol,’” said Morella. “I’ll watch movies: see the new stuff that’s coming out and dig into the vault for the older classics; I’ll listen to as many different recordings as I can. I become like a sponge in that sense.”
That means researching Dickens and his day, as well as watching a plethora of movie versions, from the 1938 MGM classic featuring Reginald Owen (Lionel Barrymore dropped out) to iterations starring Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, even Mr. Magoo — and there’s a new BBC version coming just in time for Christmas 2019, with Tom Hardy and Andy Serkis.
Morella knows that many actors avoid seeing and hearing other versions of a role, but he embraces the opportunity to go all in with this story. “It’s sort of like: the more I can absorb that world through different interpretations and perspectives, the more it will inform what I do,” he mused. “So, it’s very useful.”
Morella manages, year after year, to turn the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab into an oasis of Victorian Christmas cheer — and fear. “A lot of people see the brighter aspects of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” he conceded, “but it’s subtitled ‘A Ghost Story of Christmas.’”
And that’s how it’s presented. After researching the story’s origins and the ideas that prompted Dickens to write it — think gremlins in a graveyard — Morella has tried to retain the gothic elements of the novella, noting that Dickens “would take these long walks at night, past a graveyard, and think about what he was going to write.”
As a riff on the theme, Morella includes a period-authentic song sung by Tiny Tim that evokes William Wordsworth’s 1799 poem “Lucy Gray.” “‘Lucy Gray’ is a haunting poem about a young girl who goes into town from her family’s home and gets lost,” said Morella. “She dies. And when family members traverse the path, they hear her. It’s one of those things that’s uplifting, and it’s horrifying.”
And that’s the dynamic he’s meticulously crafted for “A Christmas Carol,” somewhere between rejoicing in the day and acknowledging that “‘we are all fellow travelers to the grave.’
“We’re all on this journey together.”
The journey that’s central to “A Christmas Carol,” of course, is that of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts warning him to rethink his selfishness and turn over a new leaf. Morella tells the tale, playing 49 characters in the process and focusing on what he calls “that bond of humanity” that Dickens was so good at illustrating, “that idea that we have to make the most of what we have right now.
“It helps knowing that it’s going to end well,” he added, “but it’s like a roller coaster ride that’s thrilling, powerful and emotional.”
And while every word (except for the Wordsworth poem sung by Tiny Tim) comes from the hand of Charles Dickens, Morella does mix it up from year to year, bringing in certain minor characters, relegating others to the shadows and exploring the depths of the Christmas classic.
“There are a couple of scenes I’d love to get in there that I haven’t yet. That’s part of the challenge,” he said. “It’s like finding a balance.”
“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” runs through Dec.29 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; there are additional performances at 3 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23; 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 24 and Thursday, Dec. 26. Tickets range from $20 to $50. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org