A welcoming ‘Irish Carol’ in a chummy pub at Keegan Theatre

By Haley Huchler

This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts, here.

The set of An Irish Carol is an authentically warm Irish pub flush with Christmas decorations, a tap that only spouts Guinness, and a sign above it all says “Failte,” an Irish word meaning “welcome.” In this delightful Dickensian tale, Matthew J. Keenan, the playwright and set designer of An Irish Carol, creates both a set and a story that welcomes audience members into a cozy and compelling world each December at The Keegan Theatre.

The endearing background of a quaint Irish pub is at odds with the prickly star of the AnIrish Carol. Kevin Adams plays David, the main character of this tale that loosely follows Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, making the 21st-century Irishman a new spin on Scrooge.

An Irish Carol follows the familiar structure of Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol. We meet grumpy pub owner David, who berates his bartender and snaps at his friends, a gang of locals who are as joyful as David is prickly. Mentions of economic hardship and cell phones place this story somewhere around the Great Recession in 2008. David’s pub is losing business, partially due to his abrasive demeanor that deters customers and friends alike. Only a few old regulars remain loyal, continuing to patronize the pub and persuade their old friend to change his ill-tempered ways before it’s too late.

Unlike Dickens’ version of events, there are no ghastly ghosts that come to haunt the Scrooge-like character, just jolly, slightly foul-mouthed men who still believe they have a chance to make David see the error of his ways. Humor and lightheartedness abound in a play that could easily be much darker. The physical comedy, particularly of Timothy H. Lynch as Frank, is a delight. The gang of mildly crude men is balanced out by Sarah Chapin’s warm and cheery role as Simon’s fiancée, Anna. The performance of Taylor Witt as the bartender Bartek brings optimism and hope to the story — despite his poor treatment by David, Bartek holds fast to the idea that most people are fundamentally good at heart.

The story of An Irish Carol is simple and grounded in banter, wisecracks, and well wishes among friends. The audience gets to sit in on a chummy conversation among pals reminiscing about the good ol’ days, trying to remind David of his connection to friends and to the world. The Keegan Theatre provides a cozy and intimate place for this particular play to unfold, and I couldn’t imagine a more suitable venue. The experience felt truly akin to sitting in a beloved pub chatting with friends.

Director Mark A. Rhea never lets the story descend into the bleakness that it could, delivering a tale that doesn’t make the viewer despair about David’s final fate, unlike in some retellings of A Christmas Carol where we deeply fear for the Scrooge character’s soul. There is a deep and comforting reassurance in An Irish Carol that things, however grim they may seem, will turn out for the better.

The frequent and precise changes in lighting from warm gold to icy blue illuminate the tone of each scene, reminding us that although this play has a lighthearted feel, there is still emotional depth to the story. While the cast may excel at bringing humor and joy to the stage, they are also clearly committed to the exploration of complex relationships and emotions. I was moved by Mike Tinder’s portrayal of Richard, an old friend of David’s who, amid his own personal sorrows, delivers what may be the final nudge to inspire David’s change.

The story’s resolution falls a little flat compared to the careful and lively buildup. David’s decision to alter his life feels too internalized. His main inspiration to change was a letter whose contents we never see, and it was a bit disappointing to be left wondering what exactly was said to make David change his tune.

Nevertheless, An Irish Carol delivers in the most important ways: laughter, clever dialogue, and a beloved story with heart. The rollicking characters in this play are more memorable than those of other retellings, and for that, An Irish Carol is well worth a trip to The Keegan Theatre this holiday season.

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