A Christmas Carol, Goodman Theatre.

These days Dickens’s plea for fellow feeling seems more than just holiday guilt giving–it’s a wake-up call. Tom Creamer’s increasingly timely adaptation drives home a psychologically apt lesson: charity and compassion increase as we taste our mortality. Our great strength is to know our weakness, see it in others, and offer help. Sure it’s a cash cow, but Goodman Theatre’s 18th annual Christmas Carol also reminds us of what we forget at our peril.

Now staging his third revival, Chuck Smith makes the spirits soar, with rollicking help from Larry Schanker’s supple blend of lesser-known traditional carols and charged incidental music. Mary Ernster’s coloratura Ghost of Christmas Past is almost operatic, and the delightful Fezziwig party–now magnificently hosted by David Girolmo’s hearty Fezziwig–overflows with musical merriment and vintage country dances. In highly crafted and textured performances, Paul Amandes as Bob Cratchit forlornly hides his decency as if it might be subject to a tax, Dale Morgan oozes opportunism as the venal undertaker, and John Reeger’s Marley haunts us with an ancient vengeance. Many more could be cited: this may be the strongest Carol in several seasons.

Making it hum, sing, and guffaw is Tom Mula’s Ebenezer, a tragicomic masterpiece performance worthy of Buster Keaton. It’s a joy to watch this Scrooge deftly execute hilarious comic turns without denting his gruffness. Even more awesome is the way the postghost Scrooge seems about to relapse for one knife-edged moment, then slowly and infectiously grows happy. It’s one of those stage moments when a laugh balances precisely on a tear.