PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Aileen Wen McGroddy spent the summer thinking about Christmas.
More specifically, she was thinking about directing the 46th annual production of “A Christmas Carol” for Trinity Repertory Company, and she did a lot of prep.
First, “I went back to Dickens’ novella to re-engage with the original text,” she said recently, during an interview on a day off from rehearsals,
Next, she read scripts from the past eight years. Trinity Rep famously has come up with a new adaptation of the familiar story every year since founding artistic director Adrian Hall staged his first production, with music by Richard Cumming, in 1977.
“A lot about this year’s production is engaging with that legacy,” she noted. “Working with Trinity Rep actors, they’re carrying around, deep in their brains, years of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ What might be kicking around in their imaginations?”
Finally, she asked herself, “Why do we go to this story year after year of Christmas in Dickensian England? What is it about it that would be exciting?”
Then McGroddy, a graduate of the Brown/Trinity master of fine arts program in directing, wrote her own script.
From Dickens’ original text, she was reminded, “Dickens is very funny and mischevious, more than we give him credit for. The way he describes things, he has beautiful ways of expressing big ideas.”
She was affected by what Scrooge’s nephew Fred says early in the play, about Christmas as “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time … when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
That idea, of opening a “shut-up heart,” took hold.
She decided to cast Scrooge as a woman, which Trinity has done in the past, but this time, McGroddy chose to make Scrooge’s late partner, Marley, a woman, too.
“It brought out exciting aspects of the story,” she said. “They are the first women (to work) in finance and business, and what it might have taken to break through that barrier, and what costs.” Company members Phyllis Kay and Rachael Warren play Scrooge and Marley, respectively.
McGroddy also re-imagined Scrooge’s ill-fated engagement to Belle, now called Rei and played by Michael Hisamoto.
“Rei is a Japanese word that is an onomatopoeia for the sound a bell makes,” she explained. She put back a scene she said is often eliminated in adaptations, in which the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge her life had she married Rei.
“The solution was not to have them end up together,” she said. “It was a future that wasn’t for her.”
Curt Columbus, Trinity’s artistic director, has said of McGroddy, “Her work is always filled with music, joy and wonder.” In her “Christmas Carol,” those emotions are expressed in not just in words but also in the design of the production.
“At the start, Scrooge isn’t able to see beauty in the world or in the people around her,” McGroddy said. While Scrooge’s heart remains shut up, “She is in a very stark world.”
“As she opens herself up, the world gets more colorful and builds to a full expression of Christmas joy.”
McGroddy took one more look inward to reflect on what is special about the Christmas season to her, a person who “may or may not have a (Christmas) tree.
“It’s a time when there is a lot of music in the world. People are singing, even those who usually don’t. They sing along to Christmas songs.”
It’s not about being a good singer, she adds. “What matters is that you’re participating.”
Participating, opening “shut-up hearts,” and music all are part of what McGroddy brings to this year’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Performances of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” begin tonight and continue through Jan.1 in Trinity Rep’s Chace Theater, 201 Washington St. Tickets start at $27 and are available online at trinityrep.com/carol or by contacting the ticket office at (401) 351-4242.