The Cleveland Play House has used local history and local resources to mount a new Christmas production. “A Carol for Cleveland” is the much-awaited rust-belt story of our industrial past with a sometimes heavy-handed overlay of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The production tugs at heartstrings in a valid way, and will be even better next year with some rewriting, rethinking and tweaking of the script. What we have is a great start. And that says a lot.
Charles Kartali is Ed Podolak, a steel mill worker with blue-collar family values. Ashamed of losing his job, he travels to Cleveland, arriving in a blizzard and finding only a few weeks of work a year. He can’t bring himself to contact his wife and children. The idea for “A Carol for Cleveland” is a novella by Les Roberts adapted for the stage by Eric Cobel. Both are intimately familiar with Cleveland’s heritage and sensibility, making it an important part the story’s local color.
We know that effort was put into this production when, instead of an opening curtain speech given by a director or manager, a quartet of singers exhorts us to turn off cellphones, avoid photography and unwrap cellophaned candy now. Industrial steel framed projection screens roll on and off, snow is projected on them, and a narrator, Stephen Spencer, sets up the Podolak family in Pennsylvania. Ed’s Christmas gift to his family is a used car that his wife thinks they can’t afford. The resulting tension over money and jobs rings true for the late 1970s, the play’s period.
Leaving PA and arriving at a Cleveland flophouse, Ed finds a desk clerk who exhorts him to make a call to “whoever is important in your life.” Ed refuses, asking instead for the freedom to “leave Christmas alone.” After he steals a handful of cash from a Salvation Army Santa with a red Christmas kettle, Ed is invited to the Torbic home for a Christmas Eve dinner. This Cleveland family is no better off than the Podolaks, but at least they are together. Young Charlie Torbic saw the theft and is the conscience that Charlie needs to reconcile his life, and eventually call his family.
“A Carol for Cleveland” has the strong casting and production values that the Cleveland Play House has consistently delivered. The script, not without its weaknesses, puts a lot of responsibility on the child actors. All are successful, and Westlake’s Elliot Lockshine as young Charlie is especially good. Kartali as Ed is believable, with his gruff exterior covering a pained soul within. He has been a Cleveland favorite.
Director Laura Kepley has squeezed the maximum emotion out of the entire ensemble and made the production strongly presentational. There’s subtlety in the show, but you have to look for it beyond the almost bombastic delivery. Sven Ortel’s projections are remarkable. At one point, they effectively evoke a car ride from downtown to an ethnic neighborhood. Throughout the production, there’s everything from a light snowfall to blizzard whiteout conditions.
With some illogical writing glitches corrected, “A Carol for Cleveland” can become a standard for the Cleveland Play House. It’s a real tribute to our city. I suspect that children will enjoy this show as much as adults. Older audience members will have several “Aha!” moments when touchstones to their Christmases past are revealed in a surprising way. “A Carol for Cleveland” runs through Dec. 23 at the Allen Theatre.