From the moment it was published, Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol" had a profound impact on the way Christmas is celebrated. It's hard to imagine, 167 years later, that the terms "Scrooge," "Bah, Humbug!" and even "Merry Christmas!" were concocted by a Victorian author and not passed down from the Middle Ages.
Some contend that Dickens invented the modern concept of Christmas, complete with families dining together and people feeling generous toward the poor. In Dickens' time, Christmas was a more somber religious observance.
"A Christmas Carol" was so popular and influential that stage adaptations followed the book almost immediately. Dickens himself performed a one-man version of his story throughout his life.
More than three decades ago, Theatre Memphis producer Sherwood Lohrey chose one of the many scripts of "A Christmas Carol" that were available at the time. This version, by the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, was notable for its faithfulness to the original story and also a charming special effect: a magical bed that appears to move on its own.
The set and costumes were built as though it were any other holiday production. No one expected the show's immense success. The set was disassembled and used again the following year. The cluttered array of London storefronts quickly became locked in as a tradition for Theatre Memphis, and 33 years passed before anyone thought of changing a thing.
(Oh, there was that forgettable year in which a director tried to do away with the magic bed, causing a scandal. The next year, the show was promoted with a subtitle: "A Christmas Carol: The Bed Is Back.")
Theatre Memphis did almost the unthinkable after the show closed last December. The old scenery was tossed out (except for the bed). At tonight's opening of "A Christmas Carol," the audience will hear a revitalized script and see a new set that executive producer Debbie Litch says was built to last another 20 years.
Director Jason Spitzer has always loved Dickens -- especially "A Christmas Carol." He performed in the show as a child, and as an adult, he has portrayed Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Present and one of the charity collectors.
For the past two years, he also has directed the show. The experience changed his perception of the old Theatre Memphis production.
"I wasn't entirely happy with it, so I sort of went on a quest to investigate how far behind the curve we were," Spitzer said.
Last year, he traveled to Louisville, Denver and Omaha to see long-running professional productions of "A Christmas Carol."
"What I found out was that they were really no better than ours," Spitzer said. "They had professional actors, which meant that there was consistency in the performances. But in terms of dreariness, all of them were pretty much relics of their time."
Spitzer, like every local director before him, began tinkering with the 1977 script. He decided that some well-chosen narration could help prevent "A Christmas Carol" from becoming "a lugubrious Victorian wordfest."
He also wanted to revitalize the special effects and make sure it didn't become a sentimental rainbow of children.
"You know, they say that the best way to get people to come to community theater is by putting a bunch of children onstage," Spitzer said. "But what I saw professionally was a minimum number of children. I didn't want a parade of children in costumes."
Spitzer says that Christopher McCollum's new set, with fairly minimal scenery, is adaptable to future directors' needs as well.
Besides the lure of a new set design, Spitzer's chief enticement back to the director's chair was the return of Barry Fuller to the role of Scrooge.
Fuller, an actor whose Memphis stage career began in the late 1950s at Front Street Theatre, first played Scrooge in 1977.
At 82, he takes on the role for the 13th time this year.
"It's such a good role for an actor," Fuller said. "That's why so many wonderful actors have done it. It's wonderful to perform, especially for a character actor."
Fuller said that the joy he receives from acting comes from the experience of stepping into other people's shoes and seeing the world from new perspectives. He likes taking on the trials and tribulations of his characters. Scrooge, he said, is both a fun character and a sad one.
"I genuinely feel embarrassed for him," Fuller said. "I don't think he's ever really been happy in life. He's gone through life making money. His parents didn't want him. Books are his only friends. It takes three ghosts to let him know that his life has really been wasted."
It's also not a role for wimps. Scrooge is onstage for nearly the entire play. Fuller goes to the gym three days a week, lifts weights and walks on a treadmill.
"God knows, this part is a workout," he said. "But I do it because I hope people feel the spirit of Christmas. This is a carol that has been sung for more than 150 years. It's as much a part of the season as plum pudding and 'Bah, Humbug!'"
"A Christmas Carol"
The production runs tonight through Dec. 23 at Theatre Memphis, 630 Perkins Ext. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Additional shows: 2 p.m. Dec. 11 and 18; 7 p.m. Dec. 19-23. Tickets: $28 ($15 students); $10 children under 12. Call 682-8323.