Since I played Scrooge in the eighth grade, I have avoided all Christmas plays as a matter of principle. But this year, as a result of my new obligations, I was forced to spend a week surveying the local offerings of the holiday season. I have seen Mesa Community College's production of Inspecting Carol, Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre's Sick & Twisted Xmas and Actors Theatre of Phoenix's third annual adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, at a time when prisoners were required to walk on a treadmill six hours a day. The treadmill, not abolished until 1898, was a cruel machine devised to dramatize the uselessness of crime. Inmates were required for six hours a day to climb an endless cylinder of stairs that rotated beneath their feet. In Dickens' England, 8 percent of working-class children had lost both parents by the time they were 15, and almost a third had lost at least one: Murphy Brown by attrition. There was no official apparatus to take care of orphans except the workhouse system, which came into existence in 1834. Until then, relief of the poor, although required by law, had been exclusively a local obligation. Newt's "Contract With America" promises us something along the same lines.

The huge eruption of the homeless as a social problem in the past 15 years has invited a backlash of panic that threatens to undermine the humanity on which the 20th century has prided itself. We are now faced with changes that propose to take the country backward, to the "innocent" time before the New Deal, when our government acknowledged no responsibility for the social sufferings of its people. If orphanages are the answer for the children on welfare, can workhouses for destitute adults be far behind? Dickens' social criticism was the principal raison d'àtre of his work, and he never flinched from presenting the bleak prospects of the underprivileged. Like Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol is filled with dark shadows, and employed imagery of death and hunger, of disease and mortality, of ghosts and guilt to dramatize the need for a spirit of generosity all too rare in 19th-century London.

Yet the current production by Actors Theatre of Phoenix flaunts rosy-cheeked children, for whom it is impossible to feel much sympathy. One need not be a curmudgeon to notice how much better-fed the people onstage are than the homeless survivors of Reaganomics who haunt the blocks surrounding Herberger Theater Center, and whose solicitations offer a bracing dose of reality.

Recognizing the easy money to be bilked from consumers in a season of overspending, producers throughout our country annually leap at the opportunity to squeeze a pious moral out of our collective guilt over greed, and the need to escape from responsibility. We would prefer to spend $55 for a pair of tickets to confirm our generous spirit than to donate that same amount to feed the Cratchits in our own neighborhood.

This Actors Theatre revival is relentlessly sunny and cheery, without a trace of social reality. The Scrooge in this Carol for the third year is Gerald Burgess, whose pathetic attempt at an English accent sets the tone for the counterfeit sentiment of the whole enterprise. He bleats "Bah" as "Baa," and squeezes out his peculiar vowel sounds like the last of the toothpaste.

Bob Cratchit is played with feeling by Tracy C. Henry, but in this adaptation, he gets stuck with a lot of windy speeches that bog down the forward motion. Tambra Smith Lamb makes an unusual and winning Christmas Past, and Kenneth Bridges is charming and effective in both his roles as Fezziwig and Christmas Present.

The technical elements are first-rate, especially Josi Ingram's perfect costumes. The elaborate sets are designed by Gage Williams, and they move fluidly within James Lincoln's limpid lighting. This is a musical adaptation by Richard Hellesen, with original music and lyrics by David de Berry. Unfortunately, every song is literally a "showstopper," pausing to embellish what has already been dramatized, and never advancing the action. Generally, Melissa J. Morris' staging is rather forced and mechanical, but she does keep this cast of 22, with three live musicians, lurching forward through ubiquitous rivers of dry ice. I suppose it might be argued that this is a holiday treat for children and a good way to indoctrinate them into the thrill of theatre; but at the Sunday matinee I attended, many of the kids were too young to grasp the proceedings and were restless for something more authentic, like the real Santa Claus.

I suspect the whole audience would have had a better time seeing Inspecting Carol, which is an ingenious merger of Gogol's classic Russian comedy The Government Inspector with A Christmas Carol. Collaboratively written by director Daniel Sullivan and his talented company at the Seattle Repertory Theater, the play is a timely and relevant lampoon of a financially bankrupt and artistically impoverished theatre group threatened with the loss of its grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. This group (certainly not to be confused with Actors Theatre of Phoenix!) has pandered to its subscription audience by reviving A Christmas Carol each year for the past ten seasons, thereby guaranteeing one sure-fire success. The NEA has informed the group that it has been found wanting in artistic merit, and is sending an evaluator to give the company one last chance to prove its worth.

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