Bailiwick Repertory

The lesson in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not limited to Christians; the tenets of any enduring religion usually include some variation on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But the cultural accoutrements of Dickens’s tale have restricted it in the public mind to a purely seasonal, purely 19th-century, purely Anglo-Saxon, purely Christian, purely nostalgic fossil–quaint and harmless enough once a year, but of no real relevance given the diversity that characterizes modern American audiences. Christopher Cartmill, however, understands this diversity, and for that reason his stage adaptation of Dickens’s novella The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain succeeds so brilliantly.

The Haunted Man, written five years after A Christmas Carol, shares ideas with the earlier work, particularly the notion of a person’s soul being healed through a dream journey taken in a single night’s time. Dr. Charles Latham is a lonely old professor disturbed by painful memories–the loss of his sweetheart to his best friend, the suicide of his beloved sister–who wishes only to forget the images that dog his sleeping hours despite the opiates he ingests. One Christmas Eve, the ghost of his youthful self grants him his wish. Not only does he forget all his past unhappiness, but he has the ability to grant this amnesia to others. At first, Latham is overjoyed, and he proceeds to generously share what he regards as a blessing. Eventually, though, he comes to realize the value of memories; he learns that the painful ones teach us to appreciate the pleasant ones. But his folly isn’t easily reversed, and Latham must use all his newly discovered wisdom to restore order to his universe.

This story operates on many levels: A psychologist might conclude that you can solve your problems only by facing them. A theologian might speak of the necessity of forgiveness. An anthropologist might see in the story the myth of the tragic hero who redeems himself through personal sacrifice. A folklorist might recognize the fable of the foolish wish that backfires on the wisher. Members of modern society, where people often seek oblivion through artificial means, might hear that old saw: you can run, but you can’t hide.

Cartmill has made some radical changes in adapting Dickens’s run-of-the-mill novella: he moved the setting from Christmas Eve in 1848 London to New Year’s Eve in 1948 Chicago (somewhere around Hyde Park, from the looks of it); made Latham’s housekeeper, Mildred, and her husband, John, black, the latter recently returned from the war, hoping to enter engineering school on the new GI Bill but still wrestling with his own wartime nightmares; changed Tetterby the newsman into Joseph Abrams, a Jewish divorce who runs a small bookshop with his teenage daughter, Lainey; and introduced a new character, Latham’s old friend Sophia Blyss, a “woman of prominence” busy with an overseas war-relief organization. Though a few Dickens’s passages appear verbatim, most of Cartmill’s script is constructed from whole cloth (in the way Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra became Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure). Cartmill has an assured ear for dialogue and a prose that carries the dignity of literature while still firmly rooted in the vernacular. Just like in Shakespeare, scenes of great anguish are skillfully tempered with humorous ones and long, talky stretches–many of which may be considerably shorter by the time you read this review–are balanced with action and spectacle (most notably a dance sequence during Latham’s dream of his youth involving a Vernon Castle One-step and a rowdy ragtime frolic called the “Texas Tommy,” which drew a spontaneous round of applause from the audience).

The entire 20-member cast, though showing slight traces of opening-night stiffness, carry out their duties with expertise and enthusiasm. John F. McCormack as Latham gave perhaps his best performance to date. Sensitive performances also came from Henri Boyd as the saintly Mildred, James Lockhart as her hearty father, and 14-year-old Dana Lubotsky as the self-composed Lainey Abrams, who effortlessly steals every scene in which she appears. Margaret Fitzsimmons Morettini’s costumes pinpoint each period perfectly (the setting moves as far back as 1919 and as far forward as the present day), and Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s modular set whisks us from one location to another swiftly and surely. A commendation is also in order for Tom Fleming and Judy Myers on lights and sound, respectively, whose combined efforts provide us with nothing less than a CTA train crossing the stage–possibly the most realistic large-machine simulation since jet planes flew through the Theatre Building in Peacekeeper.

It’s hard to be hip about the holidays, and probably gauche as well; (does anybody remember that 1983 movie depicting Santa Claus as a psychopathic ax murderer?). Cartmill has created a story that’s sentimental but not cloying and characters that go beyond Dickens’s allegorical figures to emerge as whole and believable human beings. The Haunted Man is a welcome addition to the holiday genre.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.