“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol” by John Longenbaugh is receiving its world premiere at Taproot Theatre, directed by Scott Nolte. My first fear whenever I hear that someone is going to do a “fresh” take on the classic Dickens story is that they will bring in the clever guns, or camp it up, or add all manner of gizmos and modernizations to give it a new, relevant “spin”. The great joy for me in this genuinely inventive and deeply satisfying new play is that Longenbaugh avoided all those traps and found in the heart of the story a reason for it to be re-told in this manner, and by this person.
The original story, of course, takes us on Ebenezer Scrooge's unwilling voyage through his past, present and future in order for him to appreciate his true soul and the cost of the choices he has made and is making in his life. What Longenbaugh has quite brilliantly hit upon is the dramatic imperative of history's most brilliant detective when he is presented with a situation where he must investigate the true nature of his own deeply flawed soul, and deduce from every detail exactly what the costs of living as he has been living, will be. That is also the motivation for the doomed heroes of classical tragedy, and it is what gives this story, as well as the original, significance well beyond sentiment.
Terry Edward Moore is dead-on as Holmes, bringing the combination of his messy personal life and absolute, relentless precision in his investigations into balance. Holmes is so much smarter than everyone else that he can find no respite from his contempt for their inadequacy. And he can find little connection with a too common humanity. Even with his beloved friend, Dr. John Watson, he is constantly belittling him, pushing him away, measuring him against his own impossible standard, and all the while needing him desperately as the only, and best, intimate relationship in his life. Stephen Grenley gives a fully-rounded, meticulously crafted and thoroughly convincing performance as Watson. In this “ordinary” man there is never a moment of inconsistency in his character; he is exactly who he is at all times and with all persons. Underlying all the incidents in their relationship is Watson’s authenticity to serve as a true measuring stick for Holmes in assessing his own soul. “Who is this man, Sherlock Holmes” the play asks, and the great detective cannot but pursue the mystery to a true solution.
As the other people in his life, incidental as they are, all of the supporting characters are well-drawn and vivid. Pam Nolte feels so comfortable in the Victorian setting (and Sarah Burch Gordon’s fine costumes) that she makes Mrs. Hudson, the largely unappreciated housekeeper, feel like the entirety of the serving class. She also has a grace and dignity as the 1st Spirit that reminded me of those old daguerrotype “ghost” photos. Aaron Lamb did an excellent job as the young Holmes, physically similar enough to Moore, but more importantly, with just the right elements of character to convince us that his youthful mistakes (particularly in passing on his young love, the truly beautiful Jesse Notehelfer) are just the sort of choices that a person always a bit too smart for himself would have made.
Because the set (Mark Lund) is composed of a small, cluttered study and laboratory that opens up to a forestage that represents the entire external world, we never feel that far from the cloistered existence of the misanthropic Holmes and his lack of connection, in spite of proximity. During the quite remarkable “future” sequences that take us to the Christmas Eve truce of World War I, in order to say something about the responsibility of taking, and wasting, life Holmes still feels as if he is watching from a balcony, or a small window, on the great events taking place outside.
The production of this play was delayed a year because of the arson that nearly destroyed the Taproot Theatre, but I am quite confident that it will be a popular holiday production for many years to come. Of the many virtues in Mr. Longenbaugh’s writing, perhaps the one I admire most is that he always undertakes the real business of playwriting, creating characters and relationships that are of consequence, and that can be important to us. The skillful melding of the classic story with the persona of the classic detective is clever, and the least of this play’s accomplishments. Dickens asked us to consider what any man would discover if he truly pursued the truth of what he has done, what he is doing, and what impact it will have on the world. Longenbaugh asks what that pursuit would mean to someone as uncompromising, and unforgiving of human weakness, as Sherlock Holmes. This is an important new Christmas play because it doesn’t have to be a Christmas play at all; it is an all season exploration of the revelation of self. It’s an intriguing, entertaining and legitimate drama, and that will keep people coming back to the theater for a very long time.
PICTURED ABOVE: Terry Edward Moore and Stephen Grenley.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.