Tonawanda News

December 4, 2013

Christmas tradition on stage at Ghostlight

Ghostlight Theatre presents 'A Christmas Carol'

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Twenty-eight years after it first graced the Ghostlight Theatre stage, “A Christmas Carol” will return to the theater this week with Charles Dickens’ classic tale of four ghosts — and the bitter, holiday-hating miser whose journey is at the heart of the story.

The play opens Thursday and runs through Dec. 15 at the theater, 170 Schenck St., North Tonawanda. L. Don Swartz adapted and directs the show, as well as takes the stage himself as Ebenezer Scrooge, the aforementioned miser who has been played on stage and on film through the years by everyone from Alastair Sim and George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart and Jim Carrey.

Swartz has played the role each time “A Christmas Carol” has run at Ghostlight, about 14 times over the years. Over the time, he’s developed a respect for Scrooge, whom he calls a very complex character.

“I think over the years you realize he’s a real person,” Swartz said. “Some people play him like a cartoon character, all black and white. But all the things that happened to him at Christmastime ... he has a very good reason for hating the holiday.

“You start with that and try the rip the layers off to his humanity. He’s been hurt so many times that he just wants nothing to do with anyone. He’s a prime candidate for someone who needs redemption ... once he realizes he can reach out and make a difference.”

In recent years, the show has run in a three-year rotation during December at Ghostlight with “All Through the Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While the core of Swartz’s adaptation remains the same, he said elements of it change each year, as they tinker with story, characters and scenes.

“We tweak it every time we come back,” he said. “It’s evolved over 28 years. The heart of it we have come to like over the years we leave in, the things we don’t like as much we change.

“Every year we change it, we deliberately change it for the people who have been coming for 28 years ... and some people have been coming for 28 years. That’s kind of fun.”

While the last Ghostlight show had its smallest cast ever (five people for “Deep End of the Dark”), “A Christmas Carol” goes to the opposite side, with 26 people in the cast, more than half new to the Ghostlight version of the show.

Among them are Melissa Mahwhiney of North Tonawanda and her son Brennan, who respectively play Mrs. Fezziwig and young Scrooge, as well as a few other roles.

Melissa Mahwhiney called the role “a lot of fun.”

“I think it’s a very heart-warming, enduring show,” she said, “just to see the whole evolution of Scrooge going from a miserable character to a more loving person ... it’s a nice thing for people to see because it helps remind them what the season is about.”

Brennan Mahwhiney, 12, has appeared in a few Ghostlight shows, and mother and son have enjoyed appearing on stage together in this one, Mahwhiney said.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to work with my son and do a production together at such a wonderful time of year,” she said, adding that Swartz encourages families to get involved in the show. “It turns into a great big family feeling.”

Of course, they’re not the only family involved.

The Swartz name appears multiple times in the cast list, with Rosemary Swartz and Justine Swartz serving as assistant directors, Michael Swartz playing Tiny Tim Cratchit, D.J. Swartz playing the Ghost of Christmas Past and Meagan Swartz as Caroline; costumes by Debby Koszelak Swartz and Emily Swartz; and Jesse Swartz serving as technical director. In fact, there are three generations involved, with Larry Swartz, father of L. Don Swartz, serving as audition coach for each production.

While he jokes that they might not have a choice — “Family can’t run from you. It’s more like being drafted” — L. Don Swartz said that it’s nice to be surrounded by family for this production.

“This time, there are as many Swartzes behind the scenes as there are on stage,” he said. “After 28 years, it’s a family tradition. The family gets involved, especially at Christmastime.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: "A Christmas Carol" • WHEN: Thursday through Dec. 15. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays • WHERE: Ghostlight Theatre, 170 Schenck St., North Tonawanda • COST: Tickets are $17 general admission, $15 for veterans, students and seniors. Visit or call 743-1614.