The cast of Northlight Theatre's world premiere production of Mr. Dickens' Hat Credit: Michael Brosilow

In 1865, Charles Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan, and her mother were all on a train that derailed in Kent, England. Dickens used his hat to carry water to the survivors (and some that didn’t make it). That grim footnote in history forms the basis for Michael Hollinger’s Mr. Dickens’ Hat, a play with music now in its world premiere at Northlight.

The hat now occupies a place of honor in a shop run by soon-to-be spouses Mrs. Prattle (Kasey Foster) and Mr. Garbleton (Mark David Kaplan); the latter met Dickens when they were both boys laboring in a boot-polish factory. Their shop assistant, Kit (Cordelia Dewdney), has her own Dickensian tale, as her father is in a debtors’ prison. 

Mr. Dickens’ Hat
Through 1/2: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2:30 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Sun 12/26, 7 PM; Fri 12/24, 2:30 PM only; no performances Sat 12/25 or Tue 12/28, Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89, $15 students (subject to availability).

But it’s Christmas, and neither sleet nor snow nor dastardly villains planning to steal the famed hat shall keep miracles from happening. Both Hollinger’s script and David Catlin’s staging feel a little slow to get going, with a little too much time spent establishing the eccentricities of the supporting cast. (Though Christine Bunuan as a bobby on the beat and a society lady, among others, is a standout, and the physical interplay between Kaplan and Nick Sandys as the would-be thieves is nimble and witty.) But when it settles into a rhythm, the story-theater dynamics (aided by Williams Boles’s set with its backstage aesthetic and steampunk vibe, and Jason Lynch’s lighting, which lets us feel the chilly prison shadows and the cozy shop corners), offer a quirky, yet comfortable, alternative to That Other Dickens Christmas Story.