"A Christmas Carol" may at first seem like odd fodder for South Coast Repertory, which is known for tackling edgier, perhaps more difficult work.
"I suppose, in a way, that it's a bit of holiday pageantry that we sort of take a sidestep away from our normal season," founding repertory member Richard Doyle said.
Doyle and other fellow veteran actors like Hal Landon Jr., who has played Ebeneezer Scrooge for 31 years, have seen generations grow up with the production, based on the novel by Charles Dickens.
"It really points out how indomitable the human spirit is," Doyle said. "The audiences are regularly on their feet at the end of this. Hal not withstanding, more than anything [they do this because of] the group journey that the audience is on."
Many of the adult actors take on the same roles each year, but new children are brought in annually.
"The biggest change every year is a new cast of young actors," Doyle said. "Part of the excitement and the fun of it for us guys who have done it for a few decades is to see everyone doing the show for the first time."
The show is a family affair for many of the longtime cast members; Doyle's two children grew up in and around the show, and "A Christmas Carol" still is the launch of the holiday season for them. Doyle frequently meets grown men with children of their own who stop by and say they played Tiny Tim 20 years prior.
"It's kind of fun, it its way, and it just reminds you how important this community has been to South Coast Repertory, and we like to feel that we have given back to that community," Doyle said.
The script was written so as to allow Scrooge to have the majority of the speaking roles.
"It was written very purposely," Doyle said. "You have to get the journey accomplished. Without a lot of dialogue, the focus — as needs be — is totally on Ebeneezer. We are focused as a cast on bringing him on his journey. Because we focus on that, we are able to do it without a lot of dialogue, which makes for a shorter evening."
Doyle said the show is appropriate for all ages of older children, but parents may want to hold their children's hands when the ghost of Marley appears as Christmas Future; otherwise, the other ghosts serve more as spirit guides for Scrooge.
"The Ghost of Christmas Future, although he doesn't speak, is the unknown, so he is the scariest, especially for adults," he said. "I think the others are more life-affirming and reassuring and warm than scary."
Doyle said that despite being an "old chestnut," Dickens' "Christmas Carol" is perhaps as relevant today as when it was written, with its political and religious overtones — and everyday situations — that draw many parallels to modern times.
"When we originally decided to do 'A Christmas Carol,' we were pretty much a company of actors; there were 15 or so of us," Doyle said. "We had to do all of the plays. Sometimes there were overlaps; some years one of us couldn't do a role in 'Christmas Carol' and a role on the second stage show. I missed a couple of years because of the second stage. The first time I was in the show was its second year; I was the Ghost of Christmas Past."
In subsequent years, Doyle played roles like Fred, Scrooge's nephew; a solicitor; Fezziwig, who throws the famous ball; or Joe the cider vendor.
He said that back in the "olden days," before cell phones and text messaging, people would flip-flop their roles due to traffic or other contingencies.
"It was dodgy when Scrooge woke up in his bedchamber and he didn't know who he would see coming out of his wardrobe," Doyle said. "I had probably the biggest variety of roles to play. My favorite is playing the Ghost of Christmas Past."
Cast members typically portray a set variety of roles during the show; for example, Doyle might play a ghost, a solicitor and a party guest.
He said the actors who played the ghosts used to try to disguise themselves so that they wouldn't be recognized in their other roles, but now let the "role-sharing" be a little more transparent, perhaps as a way to let the audience see that Scrooge's ghosts in his dream stem from his relationships with the people in his everyday life.
"It's a lesson for all of us," Doyle said. "We are more alike than we are different, and a lot of people that Scrooge deals lightly with help him find his soul. I think that's probably true in life more than we would like to realize. Sometimes we give short shrift to the people who are most instrumental in finding our way."
If You Go
What: "A Christmas Carol"
When: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Where: Saturday to Dec. 26
Cost: $25 to $60; children younger than under age 6 will not be admitted
Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org