THEATER : VALLEY WEEKEND : A Dickens of a Time--Again

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thirty-three years ago it bowed at the Glendale Centre Theatre and has played to packed houses every year since. Tim and David Dietlein, third-generation members of the family-operated theater, say that pre-sales this year are moving even faster than in previous years.

"It's an ever-popular seasonal show that people like to build into the traditions of their families," David Dietlein explained, talking about their production of "A Christmas Carol."

After successful years at two tiny previous Glendale theaters, one on Colorado and the other on Doran, founders Ruth and Nathan Hale built the current venue, an arena-style space that puts on family-oriented productions, "keeping it clean, and not offensive to anyone," said Tim Dietlein.

Upon the retirement of the Hales, the theater was taken over first by Tim and David's parents, Alan and Sandy Dietlein, and two years ago by the brothers. (Bored with retirement, the Hales soon opened another theater in Salt Lake City.)

The Dietleins have no plans to stop staging this adaptation of the Dickens tale. What is the reason for its popularity, which has spawned at least six or seven other productions of the adaptation around the country? The author--Ted Lehmann, a semi-retired actor who now lives in Tennessee--firmly believes it's because of the script's authenticity.

After seeing Lehmann perform the role of Scrooge in a Pasadena Playhouse musical version, Ruth Hale insisted he adapt the story for their theater, and pestered him each week until the script was finished. They agreed that strict adherence to the book was paramount.

"I went out of my way, and probably created a lot of staging problems, keeping to fidelity with Dickens," Lehmann said in a phone interview.

"I don't think there are even half a dozen lines that aren't pure Dickens. I've always resented people putting their own squashy little souls into Dickens. He's quite sufficient. I just don't think he could be improved upon."

One of the frequent variations that bothers him is the casting of a female as the Ghost of Christmas Past, something that Lehmann believes is "exactly opposite to Dickens' intent. The Ghosts are born in Scrooge's psyche, and Dickens specifically describes Past as 'like a child, yet not so like a child as an old man . . . the arms are very long and muscular.' "

That's the one act of infidelity the Dietleins admit to: A woman now plays Christmas Past in their production. But Tim Dietlein, who is directing the production this year, said the words are still sacrosanct.

"I keep stressing to the actors," Tim said, "that the language with which Dickens wrote is so eloquent and so pointed and so beautiful, and that's why Ted put it in there word for word. The actors must be word perfect, because only then can you get a true intent of what Dickens was trying to put across. You can't improve upon it."

That adherence is probably why, 33 years later, audiences are still flocking to this "Christmas Carol." And why the brothers Dietlein are still producing it. It's the play and the legacy their grandparents gave them. That sort of combination gets in your blood, like theater itself. The Hales are still running the Salt Lake theater, and Ruth Hale will even be returning for an appearance at her old theater.

"Grandma Ruth," David Dietlein says, "is coming this season to appear in a play she wrote about her own life, called 'Thank You, Papa.' She'll be 88 years old."

* "A Christmas Carol," Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange, Glendale. Mondays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $13-$15.75. (818) 244-8481.

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Now see this. There's one more weekend to see Frederick Knott's thriller "Wait Until Dark" at the Woodland Hills Community Theatre. For those who are hearing impaired, Friday night might be the time to check out this production.

The theater has been doing sign-interpreted performances for the hearing-impaired for the past five years, said Jon Berry, artistic director. But this production, with several dimly lighted scenes, and one long scene totally in blackout, causes a problem because the interpreters can't be seen in the dark.

So they will be using something called Real Time Captioning, provided by a company named Total Recall. It's a stenographic computer, which casts no light on the stage but can easily be read by those in the audience unable to hear the speaking actors or to see the interpreters. It's a device other theaters with hearing-impaired audiences might check out.

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"Wait Until Dark," Woodland Hills Community Theatre, 22700 Sherman Way, West Hills. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $15. (818) 884-1907.

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