On Stage: Dickens with an Irish Twist

IrishCarolHumbug’s my usual reaction when there’s yet another variation of “A Christmas Carol” on local stages this time of year. Can’t someone come up with an original idea for a Christmas play?

No such complaints at The Keegan Theatre, where their response is a sublime one, written so deftly it hits the touchstones of the Dickens tale used in the most subtle ways. At the same time, it fully creates its own world — one also familiar in the theater world — of the Irish pub on one shambling night gone south.

The setting of “The Icemen Cometh,” “The Playboy of the Western World,” “The Weir” and “Hangmen” — a traditional Irish bar — is also he setting of “An Irish Carol,” a work all the more surprising because it is by a member of the D.C. company, the Irish born Matthew J. Keenan (whose name is so similar to the theater company).

Here, it’s Christmas Eve and ornery bar owner is in a worse mood than usual, yelling at his young Eastern European bartender, cursing that he has no business, and sneering when people actually come in.

But the characters pile in, one by one, from the winter’s chilly wind, to sit around the bar, share another round of Jameson and eventually share their stories — and theories what may have made the cranky bar owner in an even darker mood than ever.

Kevin Adams returns to that dark role with a certain mastery. He’s a menacing presence even when he’s just appears from the back room, glaring out at the bar. Though he says relatively little, he communicates volumes with the rise of an eyebrow, a grunt or a tsk.

It will take a lot to jog him from this monumental funk, and when it begins to come, it happens, in Mark A. Rhea’s direction, with realistic and very human increments — no overnight personality upheaval.

Rhea also portrays one of the regulars at the bar, Jim, who has remained a loyal and relatively cheerful customer despite the foul mood of the owner.

Another standout is Timothy Hayes Lynch, reprising his role as Frank, a comic character with a bit of tragedy about him – that he fancies himself as a ladies man and ends up with his head on the bar for half the play.

Keegan has rotated some of the players in the annual production and one of them is Josh Sticklin in the character of a former employee and current competitor who offers a badly timed business offer. Caroline Dubberly provides a much needed female presence in the cast as a fiancé who is still finding out things about her partner.

There’s a brother (Jon Townson) who tries one last time to get his kin to come over for Christmas, and a former best friend with a message to deliver (Mick Tinder).

While most on stage try to play down the intended Irish accents (bending to the script and exhortations like “Jay-suz!”), Josh Adams has a chance to play with a halting Polish accent as the hired bartender with the confusing name Bartek (it sounds at first not like a name but as a fancy title, Bar Technician!), who stumbles with English but is smarter than he lets on.

Using the language of Dickens’ story, which serve as a kind of a theatrical muscle memory, Keenan’s play turns out to be one of the least sentimental, most realistic and overall satisfying holiday fare on local stages. It’s not a surprise that it’s become an annual favorite. One would only expect other companies to pick up on its nuances (especially when the alternative would be roast the same old chestnuts over an open fire).

Keenan also did the set design – he knows a thing or two about pub design, having also done the the Keegan’s “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” last spring. The fact that there isn’t a sprig of holiday decoration in the bar on Christmas Eve (the tree is packed away with junk in the attic) tells you everything about the prevailing spirit of the place. But lighting designer Dan Martin has a nice surprise as well.

Though Dickens’ original has been made into a kind of family tale, about the hopes of Tiny Tim and such, there are no children here – and none encouraged to be in the theater as well, as the cuss words file as often as they do in real life barrooms.

Funny, sad and always human; bitter and strong as a shot “An Irish Carol” is highly recommended holiday viewing, if not this year, next.

“An Irish Carol” runs through Dec. 31 at the Keegan Theatre, Washington, D.C. 


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