“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
— from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

IN A COLUMN comparing historical photos with their modern counterparts, we are particularly keen not to “shut out” still-timely lessons of empathy and forbearance offered by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” particularly during today’s pandemic and civic crises.

Published on Dec. 19, 1843, his instantly popular novella had been written over several weeks in a white heat of exuberant creation. While the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign saw the reinvention of Christmas conventions from decorations to turkey dinners, Dickens’ ghost story etched them into routine.

A Seattle tradition for 45 years, ACT Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol” continues to strike a chord for generations of families.

Founded in 1965 by Gregory Falls, head of the University of Washington School of Drama, ACT provided an alternative to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, then devoted to classical fare. The vibrant young company emphasized modern playwrights and themes, as well as adding jobs for a growing community of actors.

In 1976, Falls adapted and directed Dickens’ “Carol,” featuring acclaimed local actor John Gilbert as Scrooge. At a lean 90 minutes, the ACT version not only sold out two shows nightly, providing a sturdy income stream, but also won praise as one of the nation’s best.

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To understand why, I spoke with ACT’s former artistic directors Kurt Beattie and Jeff Steitzer, as well as today’s artistic director, John Langs.

Through the years, the ACT version avoids the trap of “bloated spectacle,” says Beattie, who often has played Scrooge. He says it hews to Dickens’ original intent, which was to encourage “actual change in a class-bound society indifferent to the suffering of the poor.”

Dickens’ tale of redemption and transfiguration also is “the essence of great drama,” says Steitzer. “Scrooge is a man who was given a second chance and took it.”

For many Northwest theatergoers, the ACT “Carol” has become a ritual not to be missed, even during a season in which live theater is suspended.

“In a very difficult year,” says Langs, “we didn’t want to deprive people of a beloved holiday tradition, so we’ve created a kind of movie for your ears.”

This year’s audio show features music, sound effects and a cast of 17, with Beattie and Steitzer reversing their previous roles from 1998. It will be available on-demand Nov. 27-Dec. 27 at acttheatre.org.